Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Everything is up to date!

Error messages and information dialogs and displays. Oh, what a prime subject for commentary and criticism.

I started blogging in 2005, and one of my early posts was Note item not found in November of that year. Later on I made several other posts on similar matters, such as An error was encountered while opening a window and a more general critique: Reveal the error, for crying out loud. Am I right, or am I right?

When I worked at IBM, I spent many years supporting midrange systems, starting with the IBM System/3 and then the IBM System/38 and its descendants (IBM AS/400, IBM iSeries). At other stages I worked with IBM mainframes (starting with IB< System/370 released in 1970, the year that I joined IBM), the IBM System/7, the IBM RS/6000 (their first product running a variant of UNIX), and networking products such as the IBM 37xx family of communications controllers.

These IBM products were all extensively documented, and had excellent information about information/error messages.

After I retired from IBM and started working with Windows systems and Windows-based application packages, I found myself in a totally different rough-and-ready environment, more like being in the Wild West where just about anything goes. The same can be said about Web browser interactions and Web apps, as well as apps running on smartphones and tablets.image

I find this especially to be the case with the information/error messaging side of things. Perhaps my greatest bugbear is the Something went wrong class of error message> They indicate that an application’s designers and developers have paid little attention to conveying accurate and pertinent messages.

In the picture at right, at least we know something went wrong in a Web browser environment, but I’ve seen similar messages pop up -- out of the blue, on one of the four monitors on my system – which might have been generated by any one of the dozens and dozens of foreground and background tasks running om the system. The worst of these have a blank title bar and give not the slightest clue about where they originated! Oh so cryptic. Oh so hopeless.

When developing NotesTracker (now passed on to Alex Elliott at AGECOM to support and continue development) I painstakingly paid attention to providing users with accurate and detailed information and error messages. Here are a couple of them:

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My approach, when specifying and coding apps,  is to give both positive and negative feedback, and whenever an error occurs be sure to give clear instructions (or hints, at the very least) about the steps needed to recover.

I also made sure to review and refine the messages with each new version of the product, to reflect user feedback plus changes and enhancements in the product. Stale, out of date information is anathema.

Well alright, enough of my complaining about the faults of the software industry. Today’s diatribe now ends, let me move on to happier thoughts.

This post was kicked off by my amusement when I checked for updates to my installation of Everything Search Engine (for Windows). It’s an excellent free utility that I use all the time to ferret out files and folders from amongst the millions that I have on my system. It claims to “locate files and folders by name instantly” and it sure delivers on its promise. Well, perhaps it overstates its promises in the following info dialog that it produces:

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Everything? … Everywhere? … Now that’s a claim!

Reminds me of the following claim made about Kansas City:

What’s next? They’ve gone about as far as they can go!

UPDATE:
The developer of Everything Search Engine, David Carpernter, has informed me that if you’re unfortunate you might see the following error message heaven forbid:

Everything has stopped working

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