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What is an Error Message?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 16, 2024
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Computers use hardware, software, and network components that will inevitably fail. An error message is a visual message that describes a failure in a computer application or device. Typically, a message will give the user adequate information to determine how to resolve the problem.

A computer hardware error is an error to a physical device within a computer system. When a hardware device encounters a failure condition, an error message is generated to the computer application. This message typically includes the hardware device name, the issue, and the time of the failure.

All computer operating systems have a form of error log. An error log is a log file that tracks errors for a computer system. This log file includes a detail message for each warning and error in the operating system.

Many computer systems are connected to communication networks. These networks enable the sharing of data and resources. When a computer network encounters an unexpected issue, an error message is created. A typical network error message will include the software function attempted with the general network error encountered.

Best-practice software development includes proper management of the software errors. This process typically requires the detailed design and coding of error modules within the software application. These modules are the delivery mechanisms for the error message to the user or administrator of the application.

Enterprise software management includes support and monitoring of computer applications within the organization. Software monitoring tools are responsible for monitoring error messages for these applications. When an error is detected the monitoring tool can execute escalation procedures to include pager notification and system cycling.

A computer operating system is the heart of a computer system. The operating system manages the interaction between software and hardware components of the entire system. When a hardware component is incompatible with a software component an error message is displayed to the user.

"The blue screen of death" is the term used to describe the error message that is generated when an operating system has a critical error that requires an immediate shut down. This term is often used for error that is encountered with the Microsoft® Windows™ operating system. When this error is encountered the information presented is more for diagnostic purposes, which is difficult for most users to understand.

In computer software development it is important to create clear error messages. The message should explain the reason for the error and possible solutions. Typically these errors are simultaneously written to a computer screen and operating system log file.

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Discussion Comments

By cs27132 — On Mar 20, 2014

Even on newer operating system, computer errors are also present. I've got a frowny face blue screen error on my new Windows 8.1 machine. This is disappointing. Good thing solutions from blogs and other forum websites like this are available.

By VivAnne — On Sep 13, 2011

@orangey09 - Incomprehensible error messages are actually considered a sign of badly-made programs and web sites.

Error messages are actually a part of the GUI -- graphic user interface -- designed to interact with the person using the computer. The whole goal of a GUI is to make the computer usable by the average person, including dong whatever actions they want while using the computer. So, having an error message that doesn't make sense is against GUI goals.

I hear about this a lot in my line of work, which is coding web pages. Did you know that there are actually tutorials on how to craft a good error message? The requirements for a good error message are as follows:

1. State that there was an error.

2. Explain why there was an error.

3. Give the user at least one option for how to fix the error.

Messages that just pop up an error code are poorly written, and trust me, professionals are trying to change that.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 13, 2011

I got the “blue screen of death” right before my computer died. It simply refused to turn back on, so there was nothing that could be done until the tech man could take it apart.

I had to switch desks for awhile. I worked on one girl’s computer while she was on vacation. When she returned, I moved to the desk of another vacationing employee. It’s a good thing that my computer died during a time when everyone had scheduled off!

Eventually, the computer tech rebuilt my hard drive. I don’t know the details, but it worked fine, except I had to reinstall all of my programs. We were missing the CDs for a couple of them, so I never got those back.

By seag47 — On Sep 12, 2011

I frequently have to open documents sent to me by clients, and often, I get the dreaded error message telling me that the file type is not supported by the program. I then have to write back to the client and ask them to send me the document in another format.

Often, they don’t understand and don’t know how. They usually keep trying to save it as something else until we find something that will work.

Sometimes, I can get around this by changing the file extension name. If the file is a photograph, I can change the extension to .jpg, and sometimes, it will open. This doesn’t always work, but it’s the first thing I try when I get that type of error message.

By cloudel — On Sep 11, 2011

I get a lot of software error messages on my computer at work. I will be working away at a design when the window disappears all of a sudden and is replaced by an error message stating that the program has unexpectedly shut down.

The good news is that the program saves what I’m working on automatically every few minutes, so I never lose too much of my work. I may have to backtrack a little, but at least I have the majority of it.

All I can do is restart the program when this happens. Someone who knows more about these things than I do told me that the problems most likely occur because I’m using an outdated version of the program. I have no control over that, however. I can only use what the company gives me.

By orangey03 — On Sep 10, 2011

Error messages are frustrating to the average user, like me, who has no clue what they mean. Yes, they do provide information on what happened, but it’s never in a language that I understand.

This information is helpful when I call the computer repair guy, though. He always asks me what the error message said, and he always knows what it means.

I really wish I had a better understanding of computers. The only way I know what an error message means is if it is one that I have seen in the past. The computer repairman always tells me what the problem was and what he did to solve it.

By turquoise — On Sep 10, 2011

@burcinc-- Hey, I'm no expert but I know these things happen often.

Sometimes it happens with software that needs to be upgraded. Do you have the software somewhere else? Maybe you could delete it and renew it?

The program you are trying to download might not be suitable with your system. Check if the version you are downloading is for PC or MAC. You might just be trying to download the wrong one. There is usually two versions available, one for each type of system. I've accidentally picked the wrong one before.

I hope this helps!

By burcinc — On Sep 10, 2011

I have been getting an error message with a program I'm trying to download onto my computer. I had a similar problem with a software last week which refused to open and kept showing an error message.

Anyone have an idea what might be going on here?

The software was working up until last week and this program I'm trying download is completely new and all my friends have downloaded it, so I know that it's me.

By bear78 — On Sep 09, 2011

Most of the time, when I get an error message on my computer, it affects the other programs that are open and in use.

It's frustrating because usually the error message window and all other windows will freeze or even though I 'x' out of the error message, it doesn't disappear.

When this happens 'Ctrl'+'Alt'+'Delete' command is my savior. I go into the task manager using this command and exit out of the error message from there. If things are frozen, I can also exit out from everything in the task manager and even restart the computer if I need to.

Before I learned of this command, error messages were my nightmare. My desktop is kind of old and it happens a lot but at least I know what to do now.

By lonelygod — On Sep 08, 2011

@manykitties2 - You should probably take your PC into a repair shop, they may be able to help you fix your computer. To be honest though, everything your experiencing may just be caused by a virus. My computer never gives me a virus error message, but it certainly had one, and it did a lot of the same things your computer is doing.

I also used to get a net error message that drove me up the wall. For some reason, I just couldn't connect to the Internet. I know that all of my problems stemmed from viruses, so if possible, you may want to buy some good anti-virus software.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 08, 2011

My computer gives me a Windows error message whenever I so much as look at it funny. I am starting to think that my computer hates me. I mean really, what is an exe error message? Why does that keeping happening to me?

My friend is a bit of a computer nerd but I haven't been able to get him over to help me. I am starting to think that I am going to have to buy a more user-friendly system just to get away from all the PC error messages that I get on a daily basis. I just want to use the Internet without the blue screen of death destroying my day.

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