Home > Error Management, Software Engineering > How does a good error message look like?

How does a good error message look like?

It’s not easy to write good error messages.  One of my mentors many years ago told me, “it’s easy to determine if an error message is good.  One week later, wake up at 2:30 in the morning and try to understand it.  If you can easily understand what the message indicates, then the error message passes the test of being a good one”.

It’s true.

Best-of-breed error messages share these attributes:

– Unique component or caller identifier + a unique number

– Severity level:  I = informational, E = error, W = warning,

– Error description (which passes the ‘2:30 in the morning sanity test’)

– Action taken by the system as a result of the error

– Action recommended to the user – if applicable

– Detailed diagnostic information (if enabled) to quickly determine the root cause and reduce diagnostic time to the bare minimum

This is a real error message which has been subject of a recent design discussion.


– “Error:  transmission failed”


– TRX-SEND-0012E Transmission failed.  File=<name>, Source=<location>,Destination=<new location>.   10 MB of 50MB transmitted.  Transmission will restart in 3 minutes.  No action required from the user.

This message clearly passes the ‘2:30am in the morning sanity test’.   No one in the software engineering team will get a call from the client or technical support team.

  1. Tim
    August 19, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    I’d say there are two basic error messages, those for programmers and those for users. A user error message needs to be concise and specific. Error messages meant for programmers can have much more detailed information as well(for debugging purposes).
    Too general an error message is about as good as no error message at all.

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