aplicação-web – Should error messages be apologetic?


It is common to encounter an error message that says: " Sorry, you do not have permission to access this function. Please contact your administrator for assistance. "

Is an "apology" appropriate in this case?

It is a clear case that the problem is not the fault of the system/platform/service provider. So why should there be such an apology? This is important?

Do you have any authoritative source of information that justifies its use?

Note that I'm not asking if you use it one way or the other, and what you think is right. Responses with unsubstantiated opinions are invalid and must be downvoted . Information that clearly indicates and explains the reason for use, or not, is constructive.


This issue is complex and involves, in my view, two main aspects:

  • The cultural context in which human-computer interaction is embedded.
  • The context of use (error, informational alert, etc.) that made it necessary to display the message to the user.

About the cultural context…

First, it must be considered that there are significant cultural differences regarding the act of apologizing. There are studies comparing American and Japanese cultures that show that in certain situations (such as when someone picks up a dropped pen) Americans use the word thanks to express gratitude while the Japanese use the word sumimasen (I'm sorry). ) to express a similar sentiment – albeit under a cultural meaning of humility or subjugation ( Sugimoto, Naomi. "Sorry we apologize so much": Linguistic Factors Affecting Japanese and US American Styles of Apology. Intercultural Communication Studies VIII-1, 1998 ) .

I looked for similar material comparing other cultures with Latin cultures, but I couldn't find it (maybe these studies are still not common around here). In any case, from my own experience I believe that this same distinction also exists in relation to our culture: I have English and French friends who are not shy about inviting only part of a group to a children's party (in front of the others, not invited for not meeting the "having children" condition); in that same scenario, we Latinos would invite individually and privately or apologize for not inviting singles and childless couples.

The fact is that the excuse is an important social lubricant, whose character in the interaction also serves as a way of indicating the real intention of the interlocutor (something like "I really didn't mean to hurt/annoy you on purpose"), and that's why it's traditionally used to initiate a conversation considering a possible interruption of any introspection/activity of the recipient of the message ( Wagatsuma, Hiroshi and Rosett, Arthur. "The Implications of Apology: Law and Culture in Japan and the United States". Law & Society Review, v. 20, no.4, 1986 ). Especially in relation to Japanese culture, the apology is considered as necessary to "set the atmosphere" of the interaction ( "Why Japanese apologize so often?", Facebook Note – Japanese Language & Culture, 2008 ), but again I believe this it also happens in latin culture when we strike up a conversation ("sorry sir, what time is it?" does not necessarily indicate a fault or guilt, and has pretty much the same meaning for us as "excuse me sir, what time is it?").

About the context of use…

In addition to the cultural context, one must also consider that the message presentation aims to communicate to the user (read "the man") some relevant information about the condition in which the application (read "the computer") is . In other words, it is a computer-initiated human-computer interaction. For just over 10 years, computer scientists have been interested in research related to User Experience and Affective Computing , and it is increasingly believed that the hedonic, emotional and social character of interaction is fundamental not only when choosing a product as also in the continuity of its use. This means that it is not enough for a product to be safe, effective and pleasant (in the sense of absence of discomfort), it must also provide an interesting and appropriate experience for the context in which it is used.

I remember the key note presented by prof. Dr. Soraia Raupp Musse at WVC'2008 in which she cited the example of one of the first sessions of the film "O Expresso Polar" presented to an audience of children. According to the teacher, the way the characters' eyes moved in a certain scene (I don't remember which specifically) was so different from the natural that many of the young children simply cried in fear. This example is a bit exaggerated here, but it serves to illustrate the point I want to make: the way in which the interaction takes place is important for the human part of that interaction, as it is natural that we seek to humanize the other side (that is, the machine ).

There are numerous works being carried out to build humanoid computational agents with the objective of making the interaction more empathic through the mimicry of facial and body expressions, and also of vocal expressions such as the "hum hum" that denotes "I'm understanding you" (examples 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , and especially 5 and 6 ). I believe that all this effort means that there is a recognition of the importance of the humanization of the machine in this human-computer interaction.

In conclusion…

Coming finally to the subject of the question about the use or not of excuses in a message, everything leads to believe that this use is not only acceptable (at least in our cultural context – and probably also for the Japanese! :)) but it can even be even necessary under certain conditions. In any case, it is not simply a matter of apologizing for a failure, but of softening the way information is presented or of making the interaction more empathic and natural to the human user. And I believe that this is true for any form of interaction, be it just textual or not.

A scenario in which the use of "sorry" seems valid under the judgment of the previous arguments is in the case where the program condition interrupts or prevents the use of the product (or a significant part of the product) by the user. An example of this scenario is when a user turns on his PlayStation to watch a movie on NetFlix, but the system reports that it is undergoing maintenance. It seems socially appropriate to apologize in this case, especially since the impact on the experience ("Gee, I really want to see this movie right now…") is definitely large, and perhaps that impact can be mitigated by an indication of humility and subjugation in the experience. interaction that somehow demonstrates the creator's concern about the discomfort caused by the lack of the product.

Perhaps apologies are not really necessary when informing that the user does not have access to a certain resource, but I am afraid that it still depends on the context of use. To indicate to a user of a corporate system (that is, a system that he is obliged to use for work reasons) that he does not have access to a certain resource, the lack of excuses seems to be irrelevant because probably the invalid access attempt dealt with It is an honest mistake on the human part and does not necessarily change your experience. However, in the indication of inability to access a resource in an entertainment or personal system (i.e. something that the user uses because they want to, and that they do so for fun or for some personal benefit) the use of excuses may be appropriate. . In fact, in this case it might even be appropriate to include additional interactions such as "Would you like access to this feature?".


I found this thread in User Experience that addresses the same topic. The accepted answer (and also with the most votes) agrees that the use of "apologies" is appropriate and often necessary. Among the various arguments (I advise you to read the question and its answers), there are two based on quotes from scientific studies whose results support a polite strategy of apologizing.

The first quote is from the article " The Effect of Apologetic Error Messages and Mood States on Computer Users' Self-Appraisal of Performance ". The passage that seems relevant to me is this (in free translation):

When users encountered problems, the system provided certain error messages representing a positive courtesy strategy (for example, a joke), a negative one (for example, a simple apology), and a mechanical error message (for example, the page is temporarily unavailable). The results of the study demonstrate that users who deal with social events and expressions of courtesy significantly prefer to receive messages with apologies than mechanical messages or jokes; they also significantly prefer to receive such messages than other less polite options.

The second quote is taken from the article " Computer Apology: The Effect of the Apologetic Feedback on Users in Computerized Environment ". Again, what seems relevant in free translation:

[…] this study shows that almost all the participants did not consider the apologetic responses ( feedbacks ) as something strange, with 95% of them considering such responses delicate and a consideration for their well-being. In this regard, it seems that participants find it just as interesting to perceive respectful behavior (such as an apology) when encountering an error caused by the computer's inability as they would find it if they encountered a problem interacting with a human. These study results indicate that the representation of a person's affective state in the interface design is very important in human-computer interaction because people are more understanding when seeing emotional aspects in the interface such as sensitivity, respect and a sense of humanity. Thus, these results may be evidence to support that the use of apologetic expressions on computers can foster the idea of ​​a truly user-centered design.

It should be noted that apologies are not necessarily more appropriate than humor. In the scientific study of the first citation, user orientation was previously evaluated and it is expected that people who live in more polite social contexts (perhaps, for example, hotel attendants) prefer similar behaviors in the systems with which they interact. In any case, it is noted in both surveys that the crucial issue is the humanization with which users treat the system, which must be included in the interaction project in one way or another.

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