In my previous position, one of my roles was providing oversight and guidance for the school’s website as it went through a re-design and then serving as the site’s administrator once the new site was up. We spent weeks agonizing over the nature of the content and design, often spending significant time guessing how people would experience the site. Not once, though, did we think about the user’s experience when the site did not work. In other words, what happens when the user hits one of those lovely web errors?

In his TED talk, Renny Gleeson explains the origin of the 404 error that we have all experienced at one time or another when looking for a specific webpage. I almost didn’t watch this talk as my initial glance at the title just didn’t inspire me. Something, though, said to watch it anyway and I did. Gleeson describes the family of errors that the 404 Page Not Found error is part. Then, he begins to describe how different startups began taking advantage of these previously lost moments by adding content to their error pages.

Here are some examples.

Gleeson’s examples got me thinking about how I would want to change the error pages of my school’s website. Should I embed a video or share something about how the school turns its mission into reality? Rather than create a frustrating experience, how can I use this error to connect and build a relationship with the user?

What makes me marvel at this is how intent is added to a seemingly commonplace error message. By placing something meaningful on the 404 page, we tell our users that even when something screws up we’re thinking about them. Intentionality is a powerful thing. If we can bring it to bear on a school website, imagine the power it could have inside the school walls.

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