404 Pages – Let the Computer Do the Talking

In design and web development circles, the 404 page is an often discussed topic. From a designer/user experience point of view, your average 404 page is less than useful, offering little to no information to those of us who are not server admins. It begins with the name itself – “404”. That’s not a message for a human. That’s a message for a machine. So the web design/user experience community has moved towards humanizing such messages over the past few years. Sites such as Smashing Magazine regularly run articles on user-friendly, creative 404 pages. Most of them are well-designed and speak to the visitor in casual terms, often making light of situation with humorous copy or graphics.

When redesigning the NUAMPS site, we followed the casual, humanized path for our 404 page. We even offered a (lovely) illustration as a sort of apology. In the few months since the launch we have seen a number of 404 encounters due to the fact that in the update we cleaned house of old content, and slowly we’re uncovering those items that people are still occasionally seeking out – once a year or so.

When such visitors encounters the 404 page, they are often confused. I don’t believe that this is because the message on the original draft of the page was unclear. The original 404 page began with straight-forward copy. “We’re sorry but the page you’re looking for cannot be found… ” etc. It hit all of the major points about the issue. We suggested potential reasons for why they were seeing this page and offered ways to find information, but then the page became very casual and conversational in tone, ending with the offering of the hand-drawn illustration.

The confusion, I think, stemmed from the fact that in an effort to make the 404 page human and light, we made a page that looked like… well, a page of the site. We took away the expected message of such a page – ERROR. This message is perhaps not always best communicated in a well-designed package because visitors have the opportunity to see the page as an actual piece of content, just a page which they weren’t expecting to encounter but not an actual error. They can no longer see the error because nothing seems broken. Alternatively, a more generic, machine-like 404 page states that you have stepped off of the intended path. It says this not in words but in it’s jarring lack of concern for communication. A visitor can easily identify that something is not right.

So we have adjusted the 404 page on our main site. Hopefully it is still visitor-friendly, but we have toned down the casual, light feel. I still believe that visitors deserve an explanation and a hand getting back on track. After all, a 404 is the system’s failure to respond to the visitor, not the other way around. However, if the simplified page doesn’t work we might have to drop people into something that looks more like a UNIX terminal.

P.S. In case you missed the opportunity to encounter the illustration, you can grab a copy here.


  1. Posted 20 Oct 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Its not 1996, a 404 page should tell the user simply that the page was not found and to check the URL. WordPress and other CMS systems allow you to configure a user friendly 404 page very easily. Most people have no clue what a 404 is, and can be an intimidating experience.

  2. Posted 21 Oct 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    “machine-like 404 page states that you have stepped off of the intended path.”
    yes, i have error message in my home decoration ideas website. after i trace, it is my themes. so, need to check the path.

  3. Posted 22 Oct 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    404 is important as Security point of view also, it secure your other files in current folder from unauthorizes view in browser.

    – Agraj

  4. Posted 25 Oct 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I am developer and I never created any error 404 pages, I always redirect them to register page, so that they can think that they must register to see the content

  5. Posted 26 Jan 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    i agree with @agraj 404 is security page, for @raryan not all website have function member how does if there is only personal blog? not have function member and they redirrect to login page i think they will closed the website

  6. Posted 4 Feb 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Infact i can tell – sometimes 404 page can be vital for your visitors. If they get to your site through outdate links the 404 page is the page for keeping them in the site. That’s why the 404 page is very important. I personaly like the unique 404 pages, not only providing links for the visitors, they must be unique and different with some humor in it, kinda apology to the visitor for the error. SO i’m not agree to redirect to a register page, this can push out the visitors if they just want to take a look. Never push your visitors to register before they see what you offer in your site/blog.
    My opinion of course!

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