Errors happen. The HTTP error 500 happens when the server encountered an unexpected condition which prevented it from fulfilling the request (HTTP 1.1 specifications). In practical terms, if such condition is met, a user cannot complete the operation currently in progress and he's often stuck to such error page. When this error is distributed, a user cannot get back to the referring page because the entire site is not responding. This is the worst case scenario for a web site, especially when a payment or another commercial operation must be completed. So what should we do? Let's try to see this problem from a user's perspective.
Generally speaking, users hate such situations. Although they may have experienced something similar during their web experience, this is the typical situation which require a lot of human touch to be handled properly. For example:
- You should never use words like problem or error in your 500 page. This can intimidate users and instill the doubt about the procedure they're using.
- You should never use words copied from the HTTP status codes. They're meaningless information for a user.
- You should never use a page layout completely different from other pages of your site. This can actually create confusion for users.
- You should never use a dramatic tone in the words you're using to describe the error. This can make users perceive the problem as much worse.
Instead, follow a different approach based on empathy, levity and human understanding. For example:
- Use expressions like The server is busy at the moment and other similar phrases that don't convey a meaning of error or problem.
- Use simple terms to describe situations and increase the level of empathy by adding friendly images to help users understand the situation (e.g. the flying whale of Twitter).
- Use a consistent page layout to assure users that they're still on your site.
- Use a neutral tone in your words or, if you think that your target audience will like it, a self-ironic tone (e.g. 'Ooops, the server is busy...').
Don't forget to put on your 500 page the email address of your technical support in order to help people with recovering from this situation, for example by reporting the action they were doing or just to be assured that their purchase order won't be lost.