Stupid error messages for intelligent users

I have just downloaded and installed a trial version of Stylus Studio, an XML suite for software developers. After the installation the user is prompted for some personal information in order to receive a license key in an e-mail.

One of the required fields is a phone number. I wrote 39778440, well knowing that I left out the county code – why the hell would they want to call me anyway? But after clicking the “Get Evaluation Key” button I got the following error message “A valid phone number is required”:

Stylus Studio registration form error

What is a valid phone number?

No explanation of the syntax was given. For a moment I was afraid that this was one of those situations where the designer of the application thought that all phone numbers in the world look like they do in USA (argg!!). But being an intelligent user I of cause tried to put my county code “+45” in front of the number and clicked the button once again. This time I got my evaluation key and everything was fine.

But why is it so hard to show proper error messages? And what if I wrote “0045” instead of “+45”? Would it then also have validated ok?

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3 Responses to “Stupid error messages for intelligent users”

  1. Olle Jonsson Says:

    US-centric designers, I guess. Curious you should mention this.

    Today, my deskmate Jeppe said: “What does a Swedish phone number look like?”

    I said they could look a few different ways. Stockholm’s area code is 08, Gothenburg 031, and most small areas have 4 characters in the code, like Skara-Götene 0511.

    So, the area codes in Sweden consist of 2-4 numbers. The extension number (that is, the rest) is also of variable length. Most numbers are 10 characters wide. Old numbers, still active, can be shorter.

    Mobile phone numbers have their own series, starting with 07, and the first series was 070. (The 0 is dropped when +46’ing the number.) Later on, other 07xx numbers have been added

    Like: +46701234567 is how you’d have to enter it in a mobile phone.

    Swedes would write that as 070-123 45 67.

    We group of the individual numbers, both for aesthetic and mnemonic reasons.

    Taking this into account, and validating the shape? Never.

  2. Minollo Says:

    Phone numbers… don’t you love them…

    In Italy phone numbers can be anywhere from 8 to 12 digits, and it changes from one region to another; you can have prefixes ranging from two digits (02) to four (0185). When I moved to the States I was pleased that phone numbers had a (1)-3-3-4 format, always… but then I discovered they used 011 for international calls… why not 00 as we did in Italy and in plenty of other places?

    So, one day I had to write an algorithm to try to convince users to write “reasonable” phone numbers when registering Stylus Studio… oh boy… Well, I put some euristics in there, one of which included forcing the number of digits to be at least 9; I thought that even if valid 8 digit phone numbers exist, people would tend to include country codes, if not even international prefixes. I must say that worked fairly well, and this is the first complain I see in two years… But I decided to relax the check to accept 8 digits in future versions.

    BTW, +39, 01139, 0039 will all be accepted, as well as other number formats; I did waste a couple of hours one night on this problem, but in the end we also have better things to do ;)

    Thanks for your patience,
    Minollo – Stylus Studio Team

  3. Thomas Watson Steen Says:

    Hi Minollo

    Thanks a lot for your fine and detailed comment :)

    I know that it is hard to write a validation algorithm to cope with all sorts of phone numbers from all over the world. And you defiantly seem to have done a great job so far.

    As I pointed out in the post, I left out the country code on purpose. This is an old habit of mine. I always have second thoughts when ever I’m asked to give up personal information online. So when I saw that the phone field was required I tried to see if I could get away with as little info as possible. Of cause I could just have written a bogus phone number, but since this is my work-phone and since I trusted your company I relaxed a little and just left out the country code (then you would have to wanna call me real bad, to take the time out to actually figure out the country code etc.).

    As I wrote, it was more the error message that irritated me. But since this is a technical product I imagine that most of your users will have enough “brain” to figure out that they also need to write the country code.

    Maybe an error message with a more detailed explanation of what format is expected?