The most annoying kind of error message?

What is the most annoying kind of error message, from a technical perspective? Or from the perspective of an error that was reported from an end user where you are a developer or in technical support?

I’ve changed my mind over the years. It used to be “the operation completed successfully” or “catastrophic failure” but nowadays I rate those as amusing.

There’s always the dreaded NullReferenceException:


But as a programmer, I see that more as an embarrassing error. If someone reports one of these to the company I work for, it probably means a sloppy programming error. It also happens to be the easiest error to get, when one is being sloppy. So it can be annoying. But it isn’t the worst.

Actually I have two errors that annoy the shit out of me. I can’t say which is worse, so I’ll describe both…

The “error in someone else’s code incorrectly reported to us” error

Sometimes we receive error reports from a client liaison, someone who deals with clients who integrate with our software.

To give you a hypothetical example:

  1. I wrote a piece of software, a service that takes some info about doodads that people claim to own, and then queries the World Doodad Consortium to check if the doodads are valid and really belong to those people.
  2. People then use my service, by calling it programmatically inside their own software.
  3. Then tech support sends me an email that says the doodad service is not working. The email contains a screenshot of software I have never seen, which is displaying an error message, “the doodad service is offline”.
  4. Actually number three is the paraphrased version of the error message. To see it, one must scroll through thirty pages of email messages, several replies, angry rants demanding that this should be sorted out immediately, and so on, from three weeks ago… all of which only reach me now.

The kicker: My software never, under any circumstances, ever returns an error with the text “the doodad service is offline”. Hence I do not have any way of knowing what the error means.

It might mean:

  • The World Doodad Consortium returned invalid results because there was an issue there. My service reported this as per the software manual that their implementing developer should have read.
  • Everything is working perfectly but the integrator’s code failed to parse the response and their code fell into a catch-all that displayed an irrelevant general error, because their code assumes that if anything goes wrong in this block of code, it means the doodad service must have failed.
  • Their code never called us at all, but put the request into a queue to send later, and then because of some issue, maybe they set up a new client installation and didn’t configure it correctly, the queue never gets emptied.
  • In rare circumstances, perhaps 0.1% of all errors reported, the service genuinely failed, by returning something unexpected, which crashed the integrating client software.

Of course I have to take every error report seriously, and find out at the very least if:

  1. The request actually reached the service.
  2. If it did, whether or not we returned a valid response to the client.

Of course, more than nine times out of ten the request never reached the service, and the error actually means something went wrong in their software. And in the rare cases where the requests can be found on this end, more than nine times out of ten it turns out that we returned a perfectly valid response. Hence these errors are annoying.

Of course, there are some factors to keep in mind: The person who reported the error is a client liaison. His or her job is to keep the customer happy. He or she may not have enough context to determine the error is probably on the client system. Furthermore, the person who reported the error from the client side may be a manager, who also has no context on how or why the error happened. It would be extremely unprofessional not to give all those involved the benefit of doubt and treat their errors as important. Failing to attend to them and take them seriously may involve losing an important client.

The “system is behaving as designed” error

I’ll illustrate this kind of error with a hypothetical email… Note that the subject and message body contradict one another.

Subject: User Jack Ass can not access the High Security Risk page!!!

Message: I created user Jack Ass on the Doodad system, and gave him access to the High Security Risk page.

But Jack can access the High Security Risk Page! He should not be allowed to access that page! Please investigate and advise.

I don’t think this kind of error needs any further comment.

About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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