A rant on vague errors aka terrors

The good old days

In the olden days, fixing computer errors was like solving a puzzle that you knew was solvable, most of the time. Nowadays, it’s more like gold-digging: just keep digging and hope you find the solution by accident.

Friends, family and students contact me from time to time to help them solve problems on their PC. This has been going on ever since I learned how computers, sort of, worked- more than 25 years ago.

However, recently I’m getting more and more frustrated with the way errors are presented, if at all when they occur. Today was the last straw:

Translation “Making a connection with the service failed”.
Yours truly, Google

I know for a fact that the service works. The problem is, I can’t change any setting because I keep getting this useless error. I want an error code and suberror code and perhaps even a dump of the current program.

For me, this is equivalent of showing a message with just one word on it “Error”.

So allow me to rant a bit, thank you.

DOS Errors

For the sake of a clean UX design, error codes are dumbed down nowadays. All the way down. Until they are unusable and only frustrate users.

I can’t imagine any non-tech user being happy with that error. At least point us to a page with a possible solution, which, on google, by the way Always starts with “did you try rebooting your pc?”

The current errors are so meaningless they don’t help anyone. Why can’t the service be reached? Is the internet down? Is the service down? Is there on an error on my device? Did Trump nuke Europe? Who will tell? When you google the vague error you discover lots of people with the same error. Of course, we don’t know if it’s the same problem because the error message is too generic to tell. The result is thousands of forum posts with people crying for help. One then has to read through 50+ pages of crying people, interspersed with some helpful souls that propose a solution. Of course, you have to try them all because you have no clue which one might work…. resulting sometimes in even more errors *insert loud cry*

In the DOS-days when I tried to run a new game and I got an error message saying “Could not run game. Not enough memory” I immediately knew I had to configure old faithfull QEMM to access memory above the 640k limit. Remember that those days we didn’t have Internet. So if an error was simply “Can’t run game” we’d be pretty pissed and usually returned the game (or deleted the illegal copy).

Windows BSOD

I really miss the old windows blue screen of death. Nowadays, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to what class of errors your crash belongs (e.g. “Critical process died”) and a rage-inducing sad smiley. Let’s not even mention a  bl**dy  QR-code, FFS. The Original BSOD, on the other hand, gave real helpful error information that one could use to scavenge the online documentation.

“Oh but Tim, you can also get that information from the logs in windows 10, so no biggy.” Sure, but it’s a hassle if your windows 10 doesn’t boot in the first place huh. It’s like having a sinking ship and putting the fault in the black box with the ship. In the old days, windows would still sink, but it would send up big colour-coded flares so one could rapidly discover why it sank and didn’t have to wait until the black boxes were recovered.

Magically solved problems

Programs now sometimes appear to solves their programs themselves. I can only applaud this, however, at least tell us you solved it. Some programs are now like voodoo: you have no idea if it will or will not work, let alone WHY it does that. I recently received a laptop that kept spewing the message “Windows will stop working on [some date]”. I started the laptop and already dreaded what was to come, the device was slower than a sleeping snail and no error message appeared. My first reaction was “Aha, I fixed it!”. On further exploration I indeed fixed it: when I opened the laptop I noticed it was in standby-by mode, so the first thing I did was rebooting it, to make sure all updates etc. were resolved. Well, guess what, rebooting the laptop was the solution to the “Windows will stop working” message. Argh! If Windows could’ve just told us that I wouldn’t have that laptop sitting in front of me in the first place!

So what do you propose, Tim? Because everyone can rant!

Errors and possible solutions need to be communicated! Don’t make us dumb. I see students whose first reaction is to click away errors when they appear. When I asked them why they do this they Always respond with “They never contain any useful information”. And they’re right most of the times. Errors need to be informative. Of course, they can’t scare away inexperienced users, but at least give us a “…” button to click that will immediately show us more information. Instead, if we’re lucky, we might find a clue in the OS or program logs…But of course, that won’t work when you’re trying to solve an online problem with one of your Google services. So yeah, Google and co should stop being pedantic and give us something more than “Error. Please try again”.

I hereby propose to call nonsensical errors: terrors

Rant over.

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