My Dell MFP printer fiasco: Why complex features need useful error messages


Last week, I had the misfortune of changing the email settings on my Dell multifunction printer/scanner. Long story short, I was forced to go through a bunch of different email accounts until I found one that worked. In total, the troubleshooting took me over 8 hours, which is just horrible. All that effort just to make the scanning features work properly again.

What was the source of my problem? Dell’s miserable software (or firmware, if you want to be exact) only works with certain types of email accounts. Even with the newer firmware, the device simply refuses to connect to many types of outgoing mail servers. Finding an email service it would play nice with was an incredibly arduous task, involving the worst type of trial and error. Why was this so painful? Because the error messages from the Dell printer are totally useless.

The brilliant minds who created the printer included such helpful error messages as “Send Failed (Auth)” and “Send Failed (Wrong Config)”. You can’t get additional details about the nature of the error even by poring over the web-based control panel or printing the email sending log. So the user is left guessing. Did I enter the wrong password? Was there a problem connecting to the mail server itself? Is the authentication method not supported?

I finally tracked down the meaning of these errors, from the user guide of what appears to be an identical printer branded as a Samsung. And the list of what the errors mean is totally useless, too. For instance, the error about “Wrong Config” supposedly indicates your network settings (not the email settings) are invalid. However, all I had to do was use a different email service and it solved the issue — without ever changing the network settings. Lame.

Let me get to the point here. Email is a complex beast, and the constant fight against spam requires that ISPs be quite strict about who can send mail through their servers. That’s why they require modern methods of authentication before letting you send email. With this in mind, any device that has the ability to send emails through a service of your choice will inheret some of the complexity of email in general. And that means things are going to go wrong from time to time.

The only logical solution is to provide very detailed and useful errors to the user, instead of pointless summary messages that just confuse people. Take these verbose error messages and display them loud and clear, especially in the web interface if your product has one. After all, users shouldn’t have to pay an 8 hour penalty to deal with a 1 hour type of problem, just because you were too lazy to give them the info they deserve.