Recently, we’ve been compiling a few of our websites together. This is a really cool idea, because it allows us to use more of our data in more intelligent ways, and to keep a cleaner, more DRY codebase. It also means we can start to replace some of the parts of our systems that possibly aren’t as helpful as they could be. Case in point: the 500 page!
Now, don’t get me wrong – this page is pretty informative. It clearly shows you that something’s gone wrong. However, it’s not very helpful. It’s simply a message. So I thought to myself, “What would I like to see on an error page? Clearly this error isn’t my fault – so I should have some options here.”
Changing this error page was, in my mind, a big thing. This error message has been at the company longer than I have. Does it get a severance package? I mean, it doesn’t take Fridays off. It never turns up late. It always stays behind and works while we have parties. It doesn’t even play Guitar Hero. Short of monit, it’s probably one of our most diligent employees. Even if it stopped working, I’m sure it’d show itself as its own error page. That’s commitment… or, possibly, infinite and fatal recursion.
So what could replace this trusty workhorse of a page? I put myself in a user’s shoes. Well, I thought to myself, I’d really like to notify the developer directly. That would mean that this might get fixed, stat. Does that mean a phone number on the page? An anonymous email address? Both of these things seem far too difficult. For instance, I cannot work the Carsonified desk phones correctly; they have many, many buttons. Once, my particular unit started typing letters instead of numbers. And OSX seems to enjoy stalling whatever I’m doing by opening Mail.app every time I click a mailto link.
Nah, let’s put a FORM on it. One that sends the message to an independently-hosted site to process. That way, if the site were to go down, Dreamhost-style I’ll still be able to get hate-mail from all our users.
That’s not going to be enough, though. If I’m clearly not to blame for this evident failure, I’d like to know who is… so there should be some sort of backup contact details. Details that clearly aren’t just a blatant ploy for fame, admiration and Twitter followers.
Now, the worst part about making a 500 page is that, if you do your job right, nobody will ever see it. But things do inevitably go wrong, and a good 500 page is a useful tool to have around for when they do. This is 2008 – hiding behind a blank error page just isn’t enough. If you care about your users, and your application, you need to know when stuff goes wrong.
Current number of 500 page emails: 2