I got a call from my dad asking me what a 404 error means. He was totally frustrated and thought that he did something wrong on the internet which caused the error. He called me up to understand what it means.

This is a clear indication that most 404 pages are poorly designed. I started researching a few websites to understand how they implement 404 pages.

What is an error message?

An error message describes a problem that stops a user from completing a task.

According Neilison Message Guidelines for error message an error message should be:

  • Explicit: Indication that something has gone wrong
  • Human-readable: Instead of obscure codes or abbreviations such as “an error of type 2 has occurred”, error messages should be constructive and friendly in nature.
  • Polite: Phrasing that doesn’t blame users;
  • Precise: Descriptions of exact problems, rather than vague generalities such as “syntax error”.

Common problems in 404 pages

  • Not able to clearly convey the error to the user.
  • Not Humane, use of Cryptic numbers. Error message 404.
  • Vague terms ex: URL not found, server issue
  • Not providing direction what to do next.
  • Jargon. What does syntax error mean?

Design better 404 pages


1. Convey clearly to the user what happened wrong
2. Don’t respond as machine, responds as human

Avoid cryptic numbers like 404 and terms like URL, server issue etc.

3. Seize the humor in the situation

The message should still be clear, and polite. Something went wrong, so pleasing humor is a bonus when it happens.

4. Light their pathway.

Include links that may send users down an alternative path, or to the home page

5. Keep the footer and header in 404 page

Avoid removing footer and header from 404 page this loose the sense of navigation in user. The user always like to have control over the navigation.

These small changes will improving the user experience significantly, by reducing frustrations and keeping them on path to completion.

Thank you for reading and best of luck in your future!


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