website-error-handling-for-user-experienceErrors. Mistakes. Failures. Blunders. Whatever you want to call them, they are bound to happen to everyone at some point. Not that I wish to condone brushing off mistakes when they occur, but it’s unreasonable to expect that they would never happen. As they say, “to err is human,” but what if it happens to your website? Or your spreadsheets? Or your social media marketing campaign? That’s okay, shtuff happens. But its only okay so long as you learn from it (to prevent it from happening again) and, if you’re going to fail, do it gracefully (and with a little Internet marketing savvy, of course).

Not only can errors be prevented in the future, but better yet, they can be repurposed to have a more positive outcome. Some “mistakes” end up having unintended prosequences (the opposite of consequences–and yes, I just made it up). Here’s how you can maximize your prosequences if you run into errors in your Internet marketing efforts.

…To Reprogram, (insert your own adjective here)

I have made more mistakes working with websites, spreadsheets, and communications than I will ever be able to recollect. Nobody’s perfect. The beauty of being human is that we can sympathize but we can also improvise, adapt, and overcome. This sort of versatility is essential if you’re running any sort of Internet marketing campaign. You can’t always prepare for every potential error, but you can implement some contingency plans to make the best of a bad situation. For this reason, it is imperative for your Internet marketing company to adopt the IAO philosophy (not to be confused with AIO, which is a great WordPress plugin–perhaps a coincidence that AIO was developed by Michael Torbert at Semper Fi Web Design?). Here are some things to consider:

Custom Error Pages

I cringe every time I see a default 404 page. Yuck! I can’t hit the “back” button on my browser fast enough. Though not all your website’s users will be as much of a 404 page snob as I am, user experience is still an important thing to consider when developing a website or optimizing an existing one for the web. For that reason, it’s always a good practice to implement a custom 404 page on your site. There are some really cool things you can do with a custom 404 page that can help keep your visitors engaged on your website (and keep them from leaving to one of your competitors).

Not only can you be funny with the design of your 404 page, but if you want to take a more serious tone to your 404 page message, there are a few other things you can do, such as adding a coupon code to your 404 page (for e-commerce sites, of course) or you can add a site search feature or contact form. The point is to seal up the cracks as much as possible, and broken links are just one of many areas where you can make a difference.

408 - Request Timeout by GirlieMac, on Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/girliemac/6508023179/Depending on how your site works, you can develop custom error pages for a number of HTTP error codes because 404 errors aren’t the only type of HTTP error codes your visitors might encounter (by the way, there are some hilariously portrayed HTTP Status Codes by the HTTP Status Cats if you haven’t seen those before). On that note, I implore you not to setup a redirect to your homepage for errors, especially 404 errors. As a user, I find it frustrating when I’m trying to access a link and I get sent to the homepage not realizing that the link I had clicked on was broken.

Think about it: you have a link to a product page for instance, and it’s broken, if your visitor goes to the homepage instead, they may or may not bother to use the site search (assuming it’s above the fold for that visitor to see at first glance). They stand a chance of hitting the “back” button on their browser because they may not know why they were not taken to the product page they were expecting to go to.

It doesn’t hurt to point out that there was a “mistake” due to a broken link. Look at it as an opportunity to correct the “mistake” by letting the user know what to do from there. Redirecting to the homepage not only tries to “hide” the mistake, but you may also end up getting the wrong impression about traffic coming to your homepage when you check out your Analytics data. And please don’t use soft 404s on your website either. It’s important to know where your 404 errors are coming from (so you can fix it) and that can become more difficult to detect if the 404 errors are redirecting to pages with 200 HTTP statuses.

What would you rather have: a visitor who is disappointed in your site, or a visitor that distrusts your site? If your custom error page mentions that an error occurred, you might still be able to keep your visitor on your site, but if your visitors keep going to the homepage (or any other page that is not the intended page for that matter) when accessing a broken link, it might frustrate your visitor enough to keep them from going back to your site again.

Solution: Implement a custom error page that looks like it belongs on your site (same theme, navigation, etc.) and provide an incentive for your visitors to stay on your site.

Bounces and Exits

Bounces aren’t “errors” per se, but that doesn’t mean they’re always good. Even if someone isn’t landing on a 404 page on your site, it doesn’t guarantee that they found what they were looking for. When we don’t find what we’re looking for, what do we do? We go elsewhere–and that’s exactly what you should expect from your site’s visitors. Though there’s a difference between bounce rate and exit rate (which Avinash Kaushik brilliantly explains here), the takeaway from this is to understand how your visitors are interacting with the site and how to improve upon it.

High Bounce Rate <> a Bad Thing

A high bounce rate isn’t always a bad sign, just like having long “time on site” or “time on page” values aren’t bad things either. Some pages may experience high bounce rates as a result of a positive user experience. How is that, you ask? Let’s say you’re looking for the phone number of a restaurant that you want to call to place a pick-up order. You just look it up and go, right? When you need to make a purchase online, you want to zip through the checkout process, right? Home pages, contact pages, and checkout pages might all have high bounce rates depending on the user’s intent (and the function of the page) so it is important to consider these things before making assumptions on broad sets of Analytics data.

When Search Engine Users Bounce Back, Bing Adjusts SERPs

In a recent blog post from Bing’s R&D department, experiments were illustrated regarding search engine user behavior which tested the clickthrough rate of results in relation to their position in the SERPs. Not surprisingly, they found that the higher the result (lower the rank number) the higher the clickthrough rate… which we all would expect, not news there. However, they noticed that when the users hit their “back” button on their browser to go back to the SERPs (after having already clicked on a listing), the users typically looked lower on the page. Matt McGee explains in better detail, but in a nutshell, the clickthrough rate of results in lower positions after a user hit the “back” button to return to the SERPs was actually higher. With that in mind, Bing adapted their SERPs listings to display more results if users hit the “back” button to return to the SERPs.

So, what does that mean? That means that although Bing may only show 8 results per page upon the intial query (sometimes as few as four), when you hit the “back” button in your browser after clicking on one of the results, you should then be getting up to 14 results per page. That’s a fairly big jump (potentially 10 more results) that could end up helping you out if you aren’t in the top ranked results for a given query. What do you do if you’re the site that they click on first? Make your visitors want to stay with great content, clearly defined calls to action and, of course, an easy-to-use/read interface. You want your visitors to navigate into your site, not away from it, and the best way to do that is to give them what they want.

Solution: Make sure your content is relevant, calls to action are clear, and your site’s performance doesn’t hold you back. Slow load times and broken images may not initiate a 404 page, but it can cause just enough annoyance to keep your visitors from converting.

Responsive Web Design

These days, customization is huge! Google has been making search more customized to users, so why shouldn’t your website follow suit? The main goal of responsive web design is to provide an optimal viewing experience for users across a wide range of devices. With the uptick in mobile search, it is important to consider how your site looks when viewed through different devices. What may look good on a desktop computer screen may not be very user-friendly on a smartphone or tablet. Though RWD may be geared toward the non-human components (devices and/or browsers), the heart still lies in providing the best possible user experience for your (human) visitors. After all, they’re the ones who are keeping you in business, right? Right.

Though it’s not necessarily a “mistake” to not have responsive web design, if you don’t have RWD implemented on your site and your bounce rate for mobile visits is high, (or your visitors are hitting the “back” button on their browsers and going to your lower-ranked competitors in Bing, for instance) you might want to investigate ways to improve your mobile visitors’ experience.

Just keep in mind: responsive design isn’t always the best solution. You wouldn’t treat a cold with chemotherapy, so why implement a complex solution to a simple problem? There are no panaceas when it comes to web development, and responsive design is not the holy grail for mobile. Remember, a high bounce rate isn’t always indicative of a poor user experience, so implementing responsive design instead of considering other alternatives may just be the very “mistake” you want to avoid. Make sure you do your research or consult with an Internet marketing agency first.

Solution: Test the form and function of your site (or email marketing materials) through different devices and/or browswers and find holistic solutions that 1) help improve user experience for your website’s visitors and 2) don’t sabotage your site’s performance.

Resilient User Experience

Since you’ve been so kind as to endure with this long post, I will make this one last point here before I sign off and that is to create a “resilient user experience” for your website. What is that? Mike Brittain, the Director of Engineering over at Etsy, made a keynote address at Velocity 2012 defining what resilient user experience is, but since I wasn’t there, the closest thing I have to provide insight about this is Mike’s interview he had with Jenn Webb on how to design your website for a graceful fail. In the interview he brought up many good points about how to work around website errors to avoid disrupting the user experience.

Though this is more relevant for large sites, like those that are driven by multiple databases, making a graceful exit is still important even for smaller sites. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to send someone to a 404 page; if anything, the point is to make the error seem non-existent for the user because the error handling went so smooth, it goes unnoticed. The bigger or more complex a site gets, the greater the risk of errors, usually. However, it’s sometimes the bigger or more complex sites that have the greater demand by users.

To quote Mr. Brittain, “In the case of small failures, the idea is to obscure the failure in a way that it does not block the primary use case for the site (e.g. we don’t shut down product pages because the Favorites service is failing). Your community may not need much communication around this. When things really go wrong, you want to be upfront and clear about failures. Use specific terms, rather than general… If you have a service that fails and will be unavailable until you restore data over a period of, say, three hours, it’s better to tell your visitors to check back in three hours than to have them hammering the refresh button on their browser for 20 minutes as they build up frustration.”

Makes sense, right? If you had a brick-and-mortar store and the power went out, you wouldn’t want to frustrate your customers by giving them the wrong impression that they are going to check out quickly if you can’t accomplish that? Conversely, if you have multiple registers and one goes kaput, you wouldn’t send all your customers away would you? No, of course not. Identifying the error and localizing it as best as possible will likely reap the greatest benefit for you in the end. Errors are unavoidable, but how you and your website handle many of them is up to you.

Solution: Don’t let small issues interfere with your site’s performance. Localize errors as much as possible (to keep them from resulting in bigger errors) and be clear and direct to your visitors if the errors are too big to be ignored. It will save your visitors unnecessary frustration which might end up turning a “error” into an opportunity to improve.

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