Design & Dev

"Sorry", not "Bite Me": Good versus bad contingency design

Really stupid error messages on web sites:

  1. The web site encountered an error. Someone showed me this today. ‘Encountered’ an error? In a dark alley? Not only is this message totally unhelpful, it also manages to sound wishy-washy.
  2. An error occurred while executing service ‘blah blah’ in category ‘blah blah’. Huh? Should I be scared?
  3. Web page cannot be displayed. Wow, thanks. I couldn’t figure that out on my own.
  4. 500 internal server error. Totally unhelpful, like the first three, yet even more ominous.
  5. And, my personal favorite (this error appears on the web site of one of Seattle’s premier interactive agencies, by the way, if you attempt to reach a page that doesn’t exist):
    Default 404 page

Errors happen. That’s life on the web. Plan for it, by creating a custom error page that reassures the visitor.

If you want to learn more about contingency design, I highly recommend Defensive Design for the Web:

Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points (VOICES) (37signals, Matthew Linderman, Jason Fried)

CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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