404 Pages – Let the Computer Do the Talking

In design and web development circles, the 404 page is an often discussed topic. From a designer/user experience point of view, your average 404 page is less than useful, offering little to no information to those of us who are not server admins. It begins with the name itself – “404”. That’s not a message for a human. That’s a message for a machine. So the web design/user experience community has moved towards humanizing such messages over the past few years. Sites such as Smashing Magazine regularly run articles on user-friendly, creative 404 pages. Most of them are well-designed and speak to the visitor in casual terms, often making light of situation with humorous copy or graphics.

When redesigning the NUAMPS site, we followed the casual, humanized path for our 404 page. We even offered a (lovely) illustration as a sort of apology. In the few months since the launch we have seen a number of 404 encounters due to the fact that in the update we cleaned house of old content, and slowly we’re uncovering those items that people are still occasionally seeking out – once a year or so.

When such visitors encounters the 404 page, they are often confused. I don’t believe that this is because the message on the original draft of the page was unclear. The original 404 page began with straight-forward copy. “We’re sorry but the page you’re looking for cannot be found… ” etc. It hit all of the major points about the issue. We suggested potential reasons for why they were seeing this page and offered ways to find information, but then the page became very casual and conversational in tone, ending with the offering of the hand-drawn illustration.

The confusion, I think, stemmed from the fact that in an effort to make the 404 page human and light, we made a page that looked like… well, a page of the site. We took away the expected message of such a page – ERROR. This message is perhaps not always best communicated in a well-designed package because visitors have the opportunity to see the page as an actual piece of content, just a page which they weren’t expecting to encounter but not an actual error. They can no longer see the error because nothing seems broken. Alternatively, a more generic, machine-like 404 page states that you have stepped off of the intended path. It says this not in words but in it’s jarring lack of concern for communication. A visitor can easily identify that something is not right.

So we have adjusted the 404 page on our main site. Hopefully it is still visitor-friendly, but we have toned down the casual, light feel. I still believe that visitors deserve an explanation and a hand getting back on track. After all, a 404 is the system’s failure to respond to the visitor, not the other way around. However, if the simplified page doesn’t work we might have to drop people into something that looks more like a UNIX terminal.

P.S. In case you missed the opportunity to encounter the illustration, you can grab a copy here.