Shareware Beach

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Don’t Lie to Me

Filed under: Software Development — Jan @ 7:50

If there’s one thing that I dislike more than helpless software that throws up error messages, it’s error messages that lie. After freshly booting my computer on a sunny Tuesday morning, Thunderbird tells me:

Thunderbird is already running but not responding.  To open a new window, you must first close the existing Thunderbird process, or restart the system.

Duh. I did just start up the system. There’s only one Thunderbird process. And it’s a big fat liar.

The actual problem is that I’m keeping my email on an encrypted volume. On sunny Tuesday mornings, it happens that I forget to mount it. Then of course Thunderbird can’t access my user profile and mailbox. In fact, the whole drive isn’t available until I retrieve the password from my dusty braincells.

How hard would it be for Thunderbird to give me a helpful error message? It notices it can’t access the profile, and that there isn’t another Thunderbird instance that it can bring to front. Check if the file exists. If it doesn’t, tell me the profile can’t be found, show me the path it’s trying to access, tell me why the profile is needed, and offer to cancel, retry or create a new profile. If it does exist, explain that the profile is locked, most likely due to another Thunderbird process having opened it and then gone the way of the Dodo. Apologize for the stuck process (as that could only be a bug), and suggest to kill it via the task manager or restart.

If you’re selling a product that pulls stunts like this, it’s costing you sales. Somebody will run into this on day two of their trial, reboot three times as the error message suggest, uninstall your product in frustration, and tell twenty-five people that you suck. Don’t expect your prospective customers, who are very unfamiliar with your software, to realize that they’ve shot themselves in the foot. So try to make those error messages helpful.

What does your software tell me when I select a recently used file from the “reopen” menu, and the file doesn’t seem to exist? Most software throws up its hands in despair: “File is gone–OK”. Well, that’s not OK. Here’s what you get in EditPad:

c:\I'm a goner.txt does not seem to exist any longer--Cancel--Retry

If I want to give up, clicking Cancel takes no more effort than clicking OK. But if I forgot to pop in the CD or mount the network drive that holds the file, I can do so and be on my way in a jiffy without having to go through the Reopen menu again.

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