Projects/Usability/HIG/Messages

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Purpose

If the processing has reached an unexpected condition that needs interaction, a disruptive message alerts the user of a problem. Not any disruptive message concerns a serious problem. Sometimes, the user is just notified that proceeding is dangerous. A typical example is the “Save changes before closing?” alert box that appears when a user tries to close a module with modified content. The adequate presentation method for disruptive information is a modal message dialog.

A modal dialog is a secondary window that interrupts user's current activity and blocks interaction until user either simply acknowledge the information by clicking Ok or decides how to proceed (e.g. Yes/No). Effective error messages inform users that a problem occurred, explain why it happened, and provide a solution so users can fix the problem. Users should either perform an action or change their behavior as the result of an error message.

Modal dialogs are error-prone. An alert dialog that appears unexpectedly or which is dismissed automatically (because the user has developed a habit) will not protect from the dangerous action.

Examples

Guidelines

Is this the right control

  • Avoid disruptive messages; workflow maintenance and, therefore, the prevention of errors should be the primary objective.
  • Use modal dialogs only for critical or infrequent, one-off tasks that require completion before continuing. Don’t use modal error message dialogs at the normal work flow to inform or warn the user.
  • Use message panel for non-critical messages which do not require any further user interaction (typically dialogs with a single "OK" or "Close" button).
  • Create specific, actionable, user-centered error messages. Users should either perform an action or change their behavior as the result of the message.
  • Provide only a short error message and complement it by a Details button that provides more a detailed explanation in the same error dialog.
  • Follow the guidelines of dialogs in general.

Behavior

Messages should be:

  • Informative and constructive:
    • Tell the user the reason for a problem and
    • help on how to solve the problem.
  • Understandable:
    • Phrase your messages clearly, in non-technical terms and avoid obscure error codes.
  • Readable:
    • User has to be able to read the message in his/her own pace, think about it, understand it.
    • It is not acceptable to add countdown timers (visible or not) or to force user to read and understand the message within a few seconds.
  • Specific instead of general:
    • If the message is reporting a problem concerning a specific object or application, use the object or application name when referring to it.
  • Polite, non-terrifying and non-blaming:
    • Avoid wording that terrifies the user ("fatal", "illegal"), blames him for his behavior, and be polite.

Appearance

  • Apply confirmation button labels when no further input is required:
    • To close a warning or error message that does not require further user interaction, provide a Close button. Do not use an OK button. Users may get confused if they are asked to confirm an error.
  • Apply confirmation button labels when further interaction is required:
    • Use buttons which match the type of statement or question made in the warning or error message. For example, do no ask a Yes/No question but then provide OK/Cancel buttons.
  • Apply confirmation button labels when the user must choose between two actions to continue:
    • Use descriptive button labels instead of standard Yes/No or OK/Cancel buttons. For example, if the user must choose to continue or stop an action, provide the buttons "Continue" and "Cancel".

Implementation


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