Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Twitter Fail Whale and other error messages - what can you learn from how sites respond to users in downtime?

The Guardian interviewed the Twitter founders recently and I was intrigued to see them talk about the 'Fail Whale.' Twitter has had its fair share of problems with down time this year and the Fail Whale image used when Twitter doesn't work has become something of a celebrity in its own right!

Rather than serve a standard error message during downtime, Twitter offers up an image that has become known as 'the Fail Whale.' Designed by Yiying Lu, the Fail Whale now has a cult following with a dedicated website at and an online store that sells everything from Fail Whale mugs to Fail Whale T-shirts.

The Fail Whale feels very web 2.0 and aims to improve user loyalty by showing empathy. Error pages are significant consumer touchpoints and getting the right feel (eg Twitter using an image such as the Fail Whale) is important, especially if it can bring a human touch to a moment of frustration.

Other internet companies use humour in their error messages too. These tend to be companies in the social media space, where the site involved strives to be seen as a friendly and personable.

The Technorati error message refers to the 'Technorati Monster' escaping again:

The Digg error message exclaims 'Whoa! Something blew up':

Flickr had one of the most creative ideas when the Flickr service experienced significant downtime:

Instead of serving a standard Flickr error message the image below was served. 'Because this sucks we thought you might like to enter an impromptu competition to win a free PRO account.' Users were encouraged to print off the error page, add personal touches and then re-upload when the site was live. This produced hundreds of responses and generated significant goodwill amongst user groups and blogs:
However this sort of approach is not appropriate for everyone. Google and Ebay understand that their users rely on them for income. Downtime is therefore not something to joke about, it has serious consequences for the user base. As such error messages tend to be functional, informative and apologetic:

So what of Facebook? As Facebook have moved over to their new user platform there seems to have been a fair amount of error messages being served. However, instead of serving a Fail Whale type message, Facebook have just served a simple error message and apology:

In this situation Facebook are acting in line with serious e-commerce businesses like Ebay and Google, rather than in the manner of social media sites like Digg or Twitter. I think this is quite revealing and potentially illustrates how Facebook senior management want to position their company? More than any press release or sound bite, the Facebook error message seems to send out the signal that they intend being serious like Google, not fun like Twitter?

Related post
New Reddit error message goes even further!


Dan Greenblatt said...

Hi Nick -
Thanks for the really informative post! This is a great collection of entertaining error messages. Do you know of any user research that has been done to measure how the perception of failure is mitigated by a fun error message?

Nick Burcher said...

The latest Reddit message is also entertaining I have added a link to it at the bottom of this post.

I don't know of any research on the brand implications of having a creative error message but agree that this would be interesting. I'll update this post if I find anything.