Second chances for error correction


While finishing up my taxes, the tax software showed a few “errors” that I needed to correct. Actually, these weren’t errors at all, but instead consisted of a few either-or questions on a form that was otherwise blank and not even part of the tax return. Since I couldn’t continue without fixing the “errors”, I chose the best options and moved on.

A few minutes later, I wondered if I should have chosen a different set of answers to these questions. I returned to the “Error check” page, but there was no way to see which errors had been displayed earlier. Eventually, I tracked down the form itself and saw that the answers didn’t matter either way, since that part of the form wasn’t even being filled out. But it sure took a lot of effort for me to achieve peace of mind.

Rather than shroud the error checking process in mystery, the right approach is to provide a history of what took place. Namely, when you prompt the user to correct an error, make sure they can return to the same screen later to view what they changed, and then change those same values again if they want to. And if it’s not technically possible to let them revisit their selections, at least make that limitation very clear during the original process. That way, there won’t be any surprises later.