Why Microsoft Should Fix Its Error Messages In Windows 7

ExplorerDead.jpg Much of the discussion around Windows 7 has centred around how the interface will change and what features will be removed. But there's another area Microsoft could improve — the often cryptic and unhelpful error messages Windows produces — and it doesn't need a brand-new development team to do it. Here's some of the most embarrassing examples from Vista, which ideally will get improved or eradicated when Windows 7 finally appears.Prior to its release, Microsoft was happy to boast about its bigger-than-ever beta program for Vista. In the case of producing sensible error messages, it hasn't helped much. Whether these error messages only got dropped in late in the game, or whether beta testers just don't care that much, is an open question. But the need to improve the error messages and express them in plain, sensible English isn't. In some cases, there almost certainly isn't sufficient humility in the Windows dev team to make that happen. The error message at the top of this article is a good case in point. If Explorer has crashed, then Windows is generally in a poisoned state, and it's sensible to reboot rather than trying to continue on. An honest error message would reflect that reality, but I'll be surprised if that particular change makes it into Windows 7. (Ideally, Explorer just wouldn't crash, but I for one am not holding my breath.)

Not enough information

PrintingErrors.jpg Not every problem can be accurately diagnosed, but this kind of error message is no use at all. With all that diagnostic clout, can't we at least have an indication if it's a driver or a cable problem?

The wrong kind of information

ConnectedState.jpg This error message (from Word) might just conceivably be useful for a developer, though if you're going to bother mentioning a registry key name you might as well go the whole hog. For the average user, it's no help at all. There's a lot of this kind of technobabble sprinkled around MS products once you get past the really obvious errors.


ProblemConfirmed.jpg Sometimes, in an attempt to be helpful, Vista will produce this kind of pseudo-helpful but content-free message. OK, it might be useful to know that there really is a problem — but given that in this instance I'd already clicked on Diagnose, I probably suspected that. More detail would be good. Eliminating all the tiresome Wi-Fi problems would be better. InstallProblem.jpg In other cases, Vista tries too hard to be helpful. This kind of reinstall message often appears (even with Microsoft's own products), often partway through the install process when it's impossible to tell if the installation has worked or not. Some of this is probably due to Microsoft's addiction to backwards compatibility, but given the current state of virtual machine technology, that's not much of an excuse.

Bad message, bad consequences

NoLocation01.jpg What this message is actually trying to say is "The directory which this program used to store files in by default no longer exists or can't be accessed. Where would you like to store the files?" So why not say that? NoLocation02.jpg Even worse, after that message appears, Windows defaults to saving in a sub-directory of the Windows folder. Wouldn't the Documents folder for the logged-in user be a better choice?

Are there any other Windows error messages that drive you to distraction? Share your frustrations in the comments.


    I continuously have problems with my WiFi (due to the manufacturer not producing decent drivers, not Microsoft's fault) and see the "diagnose" error a lot, and would like more information as to what does and doesn't work. They have that built into MSN messenger when it can't connect to the server, so why not Windows?

    At least they have come a long way from the error I once saw in Windows 3.11 "Out of memory trying to allocate 0 bytes"

    If Windows 7 keeps the ribbon feature on their products, I'm sticking with XP indefinitely or switching to Linux.

    I can't find anything with the ribbon feature, I still have trouble finding the right buttons in IE8 (which doesn't use the ribbon) because they're no longer grouped together.

    Don't Microsoft have any User Interface Designers?

    I would love it if I could "COPY AND PASTE" there error message as it pops up so I can put it into google and find out what might be the reason for the issue.

    Hey, you can copy the dialog message. Just press Ctrl+C when dialog is focused and paste anywhere.

    You can.. just press Ctrl + C when the error message window appears (and it has focus). Then you can paste the contents to the location of your choosing.

    Pressing Ctrl + C may work, but they should probably have a copy to clipboard button, or at least allow the text to be highlighted (it's been a while since I used windows for anything except playing games, so if you can, then I apologize). Most people are not going to know you can copy the error text.

    Anyway, this is one of the main reasons I avoid trying to fix my friends non-trivial windows problems.

    Talking about unhelpful error messages: I just tried to post this comment and got:

    Your comment submission failed for the following reasons:

    Text entered was wrong. Try again.

    Turns out it was becuase I had javascript disabled and didn't see the CAPTCHA

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