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davorg (18)

Yahoo! ID: daveorguk (Add User, Send Message)

Hacker, author, trainer

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Journal of davorg (18)

Wednesday July 07, 2004
04:30 AM

Bad Design Decisions

[ #19726 ]

We made a bad design decision when creating the nms programs. When any of our programs throws an error, the error page contains a link back to the nms web site. This was a bad idea.

It's a bad idea because people visiting sites and finding errors don't generally differentiate between the owners of the site and the people who wrote the programs used on the site. They see the link in the error message, go to our web site and find the support page.

This means that we get a lot of emails on the support mailing list saying things like "I tried to use the form on your site, but it's broken". This is unhelpful in two ways. Firstly we have no idea where "your site" is. And secondly, even if we did we have no way of fixing a random installation of our programs. We don't even have contact details for all of the people using our programs. We can just fire off an email to and hope for the best.

So moving forward we need to fix this. I'll make the site's contact email address a required configuration item and ensure that the error message contains text like "to report problems with this site, please email ...".

But that doesn't solve the existing problem. We have a large (frighteningly large actually) installed user base and we have no way to contact them to suggest upgrades. I'm sure that most of our users don't come back to our site to check for updates. That's just not the kind of people they are.

So, in the future we should probably encourage people using our programs to sign up for some kind of announcements mailing list. But again, that's not solving the existing problem.

A few weeks ago, I changed the text on the support page radically. It now starts with this paragraph.

Not Your Site

Note that these resources are only appropriate if you are trying to install one of our programs on your own web site. If you are trying to use a script on a web site that you don't own and you get an error message containing the address of this web site, then we can't help you. We have no control over the web sites that use our programs. We do not set up and configure these installations and can do nothing about fixing them. You will need to contact the site owners. Now if it's our formmail program that is broken, then that might be a bit of a problem, but you could try sending an email to "webmaster@(domain)", replacing (domain) with the address of the site that has the broken program on it. For example, if you find a problem with a program on, then you would send an email to

I'm not sure how I can make it any clearer. But it's obviously not clear enough as we still get people sending support requests from that page which are not for sites they own. It's sometimes hard not to reply to those emails with a suggestion that they take lessons in reading.

Any suggestions for how I can make this clearer to people who have problems with joined up thinking would be appreciated.

Anyone else hanker for the days when the web was just used by academics?

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  • Just think of those poor people at! ;-)
  • Be short and to the point:


    This page is for maintainers of web sites. If you got an error using a web site, this is not the place for you. You should send email to , where is the site where you got the error.

    In my experience, just the presence of a long paragraph will cause brain lock-up for non-thinking readers.

    • Hey, I was gonna say that! :)

      Brief text with boldface is the way to go. Bullet points are good for scannability too.
    • I was going to say that too. The words you wrote are fine - you just need less of them

      Could you perhaps deliver the message via a script that guesses the referring site from the headers and uses that instead of If you could provide a mailto link to webmaster@<referringsite>.com then at least they'd have something to click on.

    • I think it would be more helpful if you replaced the "Stop!" with this [].
    • Even that might be too long. Maybe something like:

      If you received an error and were led here, hit the 'back' button and let the maintainers there (not here) know about it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

      If you maintain a web site and need assistance, blah blah blah...upgrade to the latest version...

  • It's sometimes hard not to reply to those emails with a suggestion that they take lessons in reading.

    And that would be bad why? They obviously do need help reading.

  • Anyone else hanker for the days when the web was just used by academics?

    The web? I've got my reservations. People are already used to gopher, it's simple to understand, and it's widely used. Sure, Mosaic is nice, but not everyone has a graphical display, or wishes to spend a day compiling it.

    Yes, I still fondly remember the good ol' days.