An Unexpected Error has Occurred

There are a number of web services I use on casual basis. These are services that I find interesting and somewhat useful, even fun. Every now and then I learn interesting things from them and they don’t require me to devote large amounts of time or energy to them. At the same time, they’re not services I depend on and I wouldn’t be disappointed if I lost them.

I was using one such service the other day, in the form of a Chrome plugin, when I got an error: “An unexpected error has occurred. Please try again”. For a number of reasons, I think that is a particularly bad way to handle an error. I was not told what the error was or why it occurred. I wasn’t told if it was an error on my part, or if something was wrong with the service. I didn’t know if I could do anything to fix it (other than to try again, which didn’t work). There didn’t seem to be any way for me to report this error and I didn’t know if the developers were aware of the error.

Now, I don’t pay for this service and like I said, I probably wouldn’t miss it if the service ended. This is definitely a first-world netizen problem. That being said, I’m assuming that the people running the service want it to grow and prosper (and maybe someday make them money). But I can’t help but wander: how are they dealing with user-end errors? Looking at their website it looks like they’re a pretty small team. Maybe they don’t have the manpower to track down and solve each and every error. As a user (and early adopter) I understand they’ll have growing pains and rough edges, that things won’t work perfectly every time. I’m not very disappointed by the fact that there was an error, but I am annoyed that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I like this service, I think they’re doing a good job. If I could, I would help them by reporting errors. I’ve filed bug reports in the past and I would do it again for a service I like. But I simply have no way of doing it. Almost anything would be a better error message than “An unexpected error has occurred”. Perhaps they don’t want to scare away users by dumping error codes or long error messages, but in that case let me know that the error has been logged. The way things stood, I didn’t know what the error was or that the developers were aware it had occurred.

So here’s the message I would like to give to this startup (and others like it): your users are smart and some of them want to help you. Especially if you’re a new webservice, many of your early adopters may be technically adept people who can file good bug reports and diagnose errors. But they can only help you if you let them. If you don’t want your users seeing long error messages, at least let them know that you’re aware of the error (you are logging errors, right?).

I ended up not using the service for several days because I didn’t care enough to track down the error. I later realized that the error could have been because I wasn’t in logged in to the service in Chrome. This is really something they should have just told me (or even not let me use the plugin till I was logged in). As a final word of advice: don’t be afraid to tell the user when they’re doing something wrong (but do be polite about it).

Postscript I tried to email the startup telling them about this issue, but I couldn’t find an email address either on their website on their blog. Their About page only has Twitter handles for the people that work there. Another note for startups: make it easy for your users to get in touch with you. I’m starting to reconsider the original goodwill I had towards this company.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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