By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

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Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

Error Messages – Facebook error messages are not only frustrating, many of them are absolutely useless wastes of bits and bandwidth that fail to provide users with sufficient information to understand what happened to cause the error, nor what they can do to fix it. Facebook could seriously use some help from experienced technical writers who understand user assistance.

Example: “Sorry, you cannot add any more friends or fan pages without removing some first.”

My personal Facebook page is very popular. My Facebook friends interact with me — and with each other — frequently. The more content I post, the more interactions I have with others, the more I promote my Facebook page, the more Facebook friend requests I receive. As a result of my active participation, my friend list has grown quickly and within a matter of just a few months I have reached the 5,000 Facebook friend limit.

But reaching the pinnacle of personal page popularity creates challenges, the most annoying of which are less-than-useful Facebook error messages related to adding ‘friends’ and denoting that you ‘like’ another person’s page.

[Note: Facebook currently limits users of personal accounts to 5,000 friends. It’s not clear why such a limit exists, but, according to The New York Times, Facebook “cites behind-the-scenes ‘back-end technology’ as the reason for the cutoff.”]

Problem: You are much too popular!

Once I reached the 5,000 friend limit, Facebook started to act stupid. Each time someone attempted to become friends with me, Facebook displayed an error message that reads: “This member has too many friends”. While that message informs the user that they are unable to become my friend, it doesn’t provide any useful — actionable — information.

If Facebook were trying to be helpful, it might suggest additional actions the user could take to complete their request. For instance, Facebook could suggest that the user ‘send me a message’ via Facebook email and ask me to add them to my friend list. I could then determine if I want to make room on my friend roster by removing someone of less value to make room for the new friend.

In the same vein, Facebook should be more helpful to me, the page owner. The way it stands today, I have no idea if — nor how many — users have unsuccessfully tried to request my friendship. This is one of the most irritating problems with Facebook because it is such an obvious shortcoming that I am surprised it hasn’t been fixed long ago.

Here’s How It Should Work

Facebook should alert me each and every time that I have a new friend request that they were unable to process … just like they do every time a new friend is added to my roster of online pals. Or they could create a list of people who tried to friend me, similar to the “poke” list. Notifying me (or maintaining a list I could check on my own accord) would be extremely useful and would allow me to consider removing someone less important from my friend list. Or, at the very least, would allow me to connect with the person who tried unsuccessfully to join my friend list.

Other Stupid Side Effects Of The 5,000 Friend Limit

The 5,000 friend limit may be practical, but it doesn’t work as expected. Facebook often starts turning away users who want to be your friend before you even reach the 5k threshold. That’s because Facebook appears to — for no apparent, logical reason — factor in the number of Facebook pages you ‘like’ into their decision process. When I try to ‘like’ one of my friends pages, Facebook presents me with an error message that reads: ‘You cannot like any more pages at this time. Try removing friends and pages from your list.’ I have no idea how friends and pages got mixed up in the same decision process, but as far as I can tell, it’s a stupid restriction that not only limits my ability to utilize the ‘like’ button, and limits growth of my friend network, it also prevents Facebook from learning more about me so they can better target (personalize) advertisements, suggest friends, and recommend content designed to meet my individual interests — the Holy Grail of social networking, from a marketers perspective, at least.

Facebook could improve this challenge by decoupling these two disparate types of information. How many friends I am allowed to have should have no baring on the numbers of pages I indicate that I ‘like’. Second, Facebook could improve it’s error message, increasing its utility by providing actionable information. For instance, Facebook could tell me how many friends I would have to delete — or pages I will have to ‘unlike’ — in order to add more friends or like more pages.

[Tip: Facebook for iPhone doesn’t appear to have the same restrictions in place as the web browser-based Facebook does. I have been able to successfully search for and request new friends, and add new friends who message me saying they received the Scott Abel ‘has too many friends’ message, using the Facebook for iPhone app.]

These aren’t the only problems with error messages and bad programming logic. One of the most irritating — and really stupid — problems with Facebook can be found in the recommended friends functionality. Facebook uses information about you and your friends to develop a suggested list of new friends you might want to add to your network. This is a handy and useful feature when it works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always behave in the most logical fashion. For instance, Facebook constantly recommends that I become friends with other members who have too many friends. Each time I try to friend someone who has gotten too close to the friend limit, Facebook displays the dreaded ‘too many friends’ message, wasting my time, damaging my faith in the recommendation process, and putting lots of unnecessary load on Facebook servers, executing commands Facebook initiated but should have known it could not fulfill.

Error Messages And The Darwin Information Typing Architecture

Facebook error messages should be less like error messages and more like help topics. After all, when a user encounters an error message that fails to provide information about how to overcome the challenge encountered, it forces the user to go and search for solutions. Usually this means a trip to the ‘help’ section of the site, which, as most users are painfully aware, are just about as useful — and annoying — as calling a customer support hotline. The likelihood you’ll find the answer to your question quickly, if at all, is rare. More often than not, you’ll find the information you need is either missing or not conveniently located in one help topic.

This is certainly the case for Facebook, which has adopted a rudimentary online help approach in which most questions are answered in the narrative, without any regard for the informational needs of the user. It is clear that there is no formal, repeatable documentation strategy nor any standard in place to make finding answers to Facebook challenges quick, easy and predictable.

Facebook could drastically improve their online help content by not only broadening its scope, perhaps by crowd-sourcing ideas from members, but also adopting the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), an internationally recognized, topic-based standard for representing help information. Help content that adheres to the DITA standard is consistently structured, semantically-enriched, and includes the elements humans need to understand and solve problems.

Conclusion

In short, Facebook error messages need a lot of work. Improving the usefulness of the error messages and treating them like miniature help topics would go a long way toward improving the user experience for the 500 million Facebook members.