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Is an informative error message really so hard?

I was on the British Airways web site this morning, checking to see whether or not I could upgrade my flight to San Francisco for next week’s Tech Field Day. And this was British Airways’ wholly useless and uninformative response;

So does that mean something’s broken on the web site? Does it mean there are no upgrades left? Does it mean you (wrongly) don’t think I have enough miles? And why on earth do any (except possibly the first) of these warrant ‘Error’ and an exclamation mark in a big red triangle? !

Error messages like this really are worse than useless. British Airways, your web site knows why it’s refusing my upgrade request, so why not pass the information along? Am I meant to pick up the phone (incurring costs for both of us) and try that route? Am I meant to retry the web site later? Or do I just wait until I reach Heathrow next Wednesday, and talk nicely to whoever I find on the checkin desk? I think I’ll try the latter.

Might I suggest ripping the current web page up into very small pieces, burying the bits in a very deep hole, and thinking about the information your customers need in order to select their next step? Instead, might I offer the following?

Sorry. There seems to be something wrong with the site. Please try again later, or call xxxx yyyyyy.

Sorry. There are no upgrades available for this flight. It has not been possible to upgrade your itinerary as requested.

Sorry. You do not appear to have enough miles to upgrade your flight. If you have any questions, please call xxxx yyyyyy.

And, as you have been a good airline to travel with, I’ll waive my consultancy fee for this sterling advice. But if you’d like to upgrade me on next Wednesday’s flight LHR-SFO (and the return leg on Sunday), I’ll happily accept.

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.