The 404 Page and User Retention

28 September 2017

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Whether reading a blog, searching for a recipe or shopping online, it happens to us all at some point: Error 404 – Page not found.

A missed opportunity

The 404 “page not found” error simply means that the page you’re trying to access is unavailable. This can happen for many reasons. Administrators may have removed or renamed pages and not updated the corresponding links. The user may have mis-typed the URL or clicked a bad link.

Many websites neglect the 404 page and hope for the best but should not overlook it. Landing on a page that looks broken or unfinished can send even the most patient users away. Offering up technical language without explanation could send them to a competitor.

The 404 page is an opportunity to help your customers, to guide them to where they want to be. It’s an opportunity to connect.

Explain for humans, not computers

The first step is appreciating that there’s a problem somewhere. Once the user has hit that 404 page it doesn’t matter how they got there, only how the situation is dealt with. Acknowledging that there’s a problem shows empathy; explaining what’s happened shows understanding.

You don’t need to go into huge detail or specifics, but it is important to explain what’s happened. Why has the user hit a dead-end? Why aren’t they on the page they expected?

The US Starbucks website does a great job of this, offering up a few simple reasons why the page wasn’t found. The coffee ring compliments the sense that something is missing.

Starbucks' 404 page

When explaining the issue be sure to use plain language rather than error codes and technical jargon. Write for a human, not a machine. Speak to your audience and use your own unique voice.

The Onion know their audience and get the message across in a simple, funny way that fits their brand and appeals to their users. The Onion inform their users, but in the same tone of voice that their articles are written in.

The Onion's 404 page

Solutions

Once your users know where they stand you have a good chance to offer them a helping hand. Even if you don’t know what content was being sought, there are opportunities to give users the tools to find what they need or guide them to something that might be relevant.

A search box is always helpful, especially on a larger website. Even if the site already has one in the header or footer, it’s useful to add a search box close to the ‘page not found’ message. This proximity helps to imply that the user should search for their desired content.

There are countless other options, from listing important pages to dynamically presenting new or popular content.

Airbnb are renowned for usability and this continues on their 404 page. As well as a cute animation and a brief message, Airbnb list pages that they consider helpful. This way users should be able to find what they need.

Airbnb's 404 page

Design magic

Mistakes happen and issues crop up, so users hitting a 404 page from time to time is unavoidable. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a positive experience.

Good design should inspire and delight. The desired content was not found; it’s still a chance to create a good impression. A good 404 page can use a little design magic to diffuse what may appear to be a negative experience.

Toying with the notion that landing on a 404 page is “bad”, the 404 page at the eHarmony website features a broken heart and an encouraging message.

eHarmony's 404 page

Marvel have a huge array of characters and make good use of them on their 404 page. Marvel have put as much effort into a page that most visitors won’t see, with a rotating cast of characters in different situations. Each is brought to life with movement or interaction, so it’s worth refreshing the page to see a few of them! It’s a great use of the page, connecting with users and keeping them immersed in the Marvel universe.

Marvel's Scarlet Witch 404 page

Don't miss an opportunity to engage users

Clicking a bad link could be a users first encounter with your website. A good 404 page is a way of keeping those users on your website.

With some thought, it’s possible to still make a connection with a user by giving clear information and guidance. They haven’t found the requested content, but the user is still exposed to your brand and your service.

A potential customer has made it to your website; give them what they need so that they stay.

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