Mitigating User Errors

August 2, 2021

All people make errors. User errors occur when people are unable to interact effectively with your Web site or application. According Don Norman, there are two types of user errors:

  • mistakes—These errors occur when the mental models of users who are not familiar with the way a particular Web site or application works don’t coincide with its actual functionality. Mistakes generally result when UX professionals haven’t conducted sufficient user research and create design solutions that don’t meet users’ expectations.
  • slips—These are unconscious errors that happen when users accidentally take an action that they did not intend to take. For example, tapping Cut instead of Copy or making a typo. Slips generally occur when users are familiar with a site or application and its features, but aren’t being sufficiently attentive. Plus, users are less likely to verify interactions with which they’re familiar, so might fail to notice a problem. Some slips are partly the result of design deficiencies as well—for example, placing a Delete button too close to other buttons—making it all too easy for mistakes to occur.
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In such cases, you should test the functionality that is causing user errors, then redesign it to prevent or mitigate those user errors. In this article, I’ll provide seven tips for mitigating user errors that you should consider when designing a Web site or application.

1. Follow design standards and conventions.

All of your users visit other Web sites and interact with other applications, which have trained your users to expect your site or application to follow specific design standards and conventions and to engage with them in particular ways. They unconsciously expect your Web site or application to work similarly to others they have used. When your Web site or application falls short of this ideal, users make mistakes and slips occur.

When you follow design standards and conventions, it becomes more likely that you’ll design your Web site or application to function in a way that users would expect it to work. The familiarity of user interfaces that conform to standards and conventions puts users in a better position to avoid errors.

2. Keep the user in mind throughout design.

No designer can really walk in the user’s shoes. To anticipate future errors, it is essential that know what your users want to do and how they’ll interact with your site or application. You can employ a variety of generative user-research methods such as user interviews, contextual inquiries, or observations to help you understand your users and their needs.

Conducting evaluative UX research methods such as usability testing and expert reviews can enable you to discover common user errors, help you understand why users are making particular errors, and learn about users’ expectations for how they can recover from those errors.

When designing solutions, always keep the user’s abilities and limitations in mind. For example, rather than overburdening the user’s short-term memory, display whatever information the user needs to complete a task.

When selecting participants for UX research, be sure to select participants who belong to your target audience and have similar characteristics to your actual users. Through UX research, you can learn how to better manage user errors and design solutions that mitigate those errors.

3. Clearly communicate what users can do.

A Web site or application’s affordances—the controls and other elements with which users can interact—should convey both the purpose for which users can use them and how they can manipulate them. Effectively communicating this information prevents user errors and is essential to the design of usable Web sites and applications.

4. Enable users to preview the results of their actions.

Users might sometimes be unaware of the full impact of the actions they take. For example, their edits to a document might have broader impacts than they expect. Or an interaction might have a completely unexpected outcome. Some users might want to experiment and look at the effects of various interactions. Enabling users to preview the results of complex interactions could prevent what might be destructive errors.

Providing a Preview button gives your users the ability to examine their work, verify that an interaction would have the expected result, and rectify any errors when necessary.

5. Ask users to confirm destructive actions.

Designing an easy way for users to safely discard unwanted documents or media is essential. But users’ accidentally deleting one or more documents is a fairly common occurrence. Therefore, before deleting an object, make sure you verify that is the action the user intended to perform.

Let’s look at an example: The Google Photo app follows a two-step confirmation process before removing photos. The app even has a trash can in which deleted pictures go before the user removes them permanently by emptying the trash can. Other platforms such as Netflix lack such capabilities so, if users accidentally delete their installs, there is no going back.

Be sure to decide when to use confirmation boxes with care. If you repeatedly ask the user Are you sure you want to do this? he’ll probably get annoyed and could abandon your site or app. Adding too many confirmation boxes would cause them to become meaningless to users. At some point, they would just click to confirm to get rid of the obstruction, without even checking their work. This could generate even more user errors on your platform.

6. Provide a safety net for users and support multilevel undo.

Despite all your other error-prevention measures, user errors are bound to occur. When this happens, it is essential that you provide an easy way for users to undo their actions, without risking their losing any work.

All Microsoft products provide a multilevel undo feature. So, up to a point, users can undo their previous actions in reverse order whenever they want.

Providing an undo features reduces users’ stress because, if they make an error in their work, they can restore its previous state, then resume where they left off.

7. Provide clear messaging and instructions.

Never assume that your users would know what to do without any help. For example, someone using a film-making app for the first time might be unaware of how to begin their work. But brief messages or small pointers such as Post a video here can assist them in finding their way around. The retirement-savings calculator that I use gives clear instructions, using phrases such as I make, which helps users avoid making errors.

Sufficient communication with users is imperative to generating the best outcomes for your site or application and its users. It is essential that you communicate with users in a way that even newbies would understand. You can do this in two ways: verbal communication or unspoken communication. Verbal communication requires that you target your writing to a specific audience. For example, a Web site for musicians would speak differently from one for single parents. This is sometimes called conversational selling. All users should understand unspoken communications in the same way. Although they’re subtle—for example, a tone that sounds when a message comes in— unspoken communications should capture the user’s attention.


Users are bound to make errors, no matter how good your design solutions. However, it’s possible to prevent mistakes from becoming a common occurrence and, thus, enhance the user experience. By designing usable user interfaces and communicating effectively with your users, you can certainly reduce the number of errors they make.

By following the simple tips I’ve provided in this article, you can help your users to work more confidently, communicate with them more effectively, and ensure that your site or application is a long-term success. 

CEO of Hyperlink InfoSystem

Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Harnil OzaHarnil is CEO of Hyperlink InfoSystem, a leading mobile app–development company. At offices in both New York and India, his team comprises great app developers who deliver high-quality mobile solutions, mainly for Android and iOS platforms. Harnil regularly contributes his knowledge to leading Web sites.  Read More

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