Think before you beep


A few days ago, I wrote about the right time to show warning and confirmation messages. Most of us have a pretty good sense of when this has gone too far, like those programs that say “Are you sure?” for every little task you try to complete. I’ve also seen this taken to the extreme in physical products, including my Dell laser printer. When it runs out of paper during printing, it beeps loudly and shows a message on the display. This is logical and helpful, even if it’s a bit annoying. But when you try to add more paper — or just remove the paper tray for another reason — it makes the same loud beeping noise. This behavior is obviously pretty annoying: if the user removes the paper tray, you can be pretty sure they don’t need a blaring reminder that yes, they have removed the paper tray. Imagine if your coffee maker started beeping every time you took the carafe out to pour a cup of coffee, or if your refrigerator complained whenever you opened the door.

Regardless of whether we’re designing physical products or software applications, it pays to think about the value that error messages have for our users. If the message just tells the user something they already know, a more subtle notification (or none at all) is probably the right thing to do.