Should error panels allow for user input?

Should error panels allow for user input? Don't answer yet. Let's back up.

 
Over the weekend, STC fearless founder Rosie Sherry posted on Google+ a screen shot of a Facebook error panel that had an input field. Clearly a bug, but she wondered with wry humor (or I should say humour) where the message would go. I responded in jest:
 
I think error panels should allow user input. Comment back, vent your frustration. Tell the program what it can do with its useless suggestion. Let's start a movement! 
 
But after the mirth (quickly) dissipated we both wondered if there wasn't something of value here. Rosie suggested posting the idea for comment. Here are a few of my thoughts to get the ball rolling.
  1. Log errors and monitor the stats.
    Okay, not explicitly the suggestion, but a likely byproduct of the implementation. Consider a meta routine for errors, with an indexed error message string table. It would be easy to log the number of occurrences of each. That data alone could speak volumes. 
  2. Allow users to provide additional information for the error logs.
    The sequence that got the user to this point, data involved, operation attempted, etc., would be very useful for analysis by Quality Engineering.
  3. Allow users to send comments directly to developers or administrators via an input box on the error panel.
    Software vendors and internal IT frequently solicit user feedback. These users may well be highly motivated. Filter through the vitriol and spam and you might find some really useful information on what users were trying to accomplish, how some aspect of the tool was non-intuitive, or what might be a better way to structure a sequence.
So what do you think? Might there be value in having error panels accept user input? Please give us your thoughts.

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Comment by Jeff Lucas on July 13, 2012 at 17:13

Two thoughts: First, I don't think it is a bug (a bad idea, maybe). Microsoft actually does that but automated with the "Do you want to allow sending this error report?" dialog on an internal exception which contained internal stack dumps. I am not sure if 1,000 feedbacks all effectively saying "It didn't work" would help, since an exception was already generated to the user - Don't get me started on error message that refer to "unexpected" errors occurring. ;o)

Second, years ago I programmed an automated test equipment rack that provided dialog options to the user: "plain English" diagnostic information based on the exception encountered and detailed information on the exception (including an option to print the dump or save to disk). However, I didn't even consider allowing the user to enter comments in at the screen that would go into the log.

Comment by Garrett on July 13, 2012 at 14:33

Interesting thought, but I'd come down on the "No input fields on error panels, ever" side of this discussion.  One key point that I think is being overlooked is identifying the audience.  In other words, who is meant to use an input field?  

Is it the end user?  I'm thinking not.  Similar to what Stephen said, how many people who receive the error would be good little users and put helpful information into the field?  Would the information gained from the input submission be worth the cost of someone reading each submission to find that nugget of usefulness?  How many times would the input simply be something like "PUT ALL YOUR DEVELOPERS ON THIS PROBLEM IMMEDIATELY OR I WON"T USE YOUR PRODUCT AGAIN!". (That one seems popular in the MMO video game world).

Is the developer the person that would use the input? Surely not, as they could debug or annotate in another environment with more efficient results.

Would it be QE's?  Probably not.  I imagine for most of us we'd have a strong knee-jerk reaction to start listing out our environment details, recreation steps, and looking for a way to upload a screenshot.  Most of which can be handled with screen recording or bug submitting tools already.

So, with no real audience, why add it in?  Or is there an audience or a way of using it that I'm just not seeing?  Also, who didn't make a fresh pot of coffee after using the last of the old pot?  Two of these are serious questions that require thought and the other requires little thought but immediate rectification.


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Comment by Rosie Sherry on July 12, 2012 at 19:58

@stephen maybe they could spend the money on interpreting error data instead of hiring testers :)  Oh, and if we're talking mobile apps, they're *probably* not testing anyways, so maybe it's a cheap way of getting user feedback ;)


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Comment by phil kirkham on July 12, 2012 at 14:41

is there a rule that says error panels cannot ? Why is it 'clearly a bug' ?

 

I've seen a lot of them recently and would LOVE to be able to send input rather than just look at a 'unexpected error [56ABZAX]'

 

Ditto to Stephens comment though - unless someone is monitoring and acting on the inputs its a waste

 

Comment by Stephen Janaway on July 12, 2012 at 12:56

I think they should fora couple of reasons.

 

1) Allowing the user to add something to them is similar to the process that people are used to with apps stores, whereby it's easy to rate and review something. Speaking for myself, I find it much more satisfying if I am able to comment on why something is not working and add my own point of view.

2) Companies spend a lot of time and effort collecting information from users, using systems such as NPS, etc. It would be similarly useful if specific information could be collected when the error occurs.

However, from a business point of view then the information is only useful if there is a system, and people, who have the time and ability to interpret the feedback from the error messages. Maybe businesses do not want to spend this money, when getting the technical information automatically (I'm thinking of things like the logs that MS collect from your Windows PC), is enough.

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