The user experience of unhelpful error messages

Here’s one reason why computers are such a pain for normal people to use and, probably, one of the many things that has contributed to the success of products like the iPad where doing less (allowing programmers to do less) results in a better overall experience.


This is the useful error message I saw displayed when the Photoshop Camera Raw 6.3 Update failed to install on a computer:


The Camera Raw plug-in enables Photoshop to process images stored in the various different RAW formats used by digital cameras and is frequently updated to support the formats used in the latest camera models.

Note that on this attempt to install the upgrade the updater helpful asks the user to fix the problems below where the problem is installation failed. In other words, “hey user dude, it didn’t work, fix it and try again”.

In this case, translated to UK-English, the phrase “Installation failed” means:

“You need to buy an upgrade for Photoshop”

A more accurate, if less comprehendible, message might have been:

“The installation failed because Photoshop CS4 is installed on this computer and Photoshop Camera Raw 6.3 Update is not compatible with versions of Photoshop earlier than Photoshop CS5. For more information see or to purchase an upgrade from Photoshop CS4 to Photoshop CS5 visit We could have checked which version of Photoshop was installed before attempting the upgrade but we forgot which of Joel’s Five Worlds we inhabit.”

How does a normal user find out that this was the reason the installation failed? Here’s the steps to follow:

  1. In the update dialog they ignore the instruction to ‘fix the problems’ and follow the link to Customer Support 
  2. This takes them to a download for the Adobe Support Advisor which “inspects the installation log files of unsuccessful installations of Adobe CS3, CS4, CS5 and TCS3 software”.  Assuming that doesn’t scare them off…
  3. They run the Support Advisor which tells them….
    …that there is nothing wrong.
  4. After a stiff cup of tea they follow the link given to Adobe Support for further assistance where…
  5. They give up when presented with a generic support page and a long list of applications they almost heard of
  6. In desperation they call a friend who Google’s ‘Camera Raw 6.3’ and notices that it doesn’t support Photoshop CS4. On upgrading to CS5 things magically work and peace is restored to the Universe.


The really sad thing is that although I’ve fairly picked on Adobe in this example, lots of different vendors are doing the same bad things that JustMakeLifeHard™.

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