Fancy 404 page != Useful 404 page

Photo by digitaltrickery

I’m gonna take (and use) my usability stick for this post, so please bear with me.

It seems everyone and her mother love a quirky, pretty 404 page these days. Tons of digital ink has been spent in showcasing pretty 404 designs, but how many of those are really what we could call a useful 404 page?

I’m certainly not the first to talk about useful 404 pages and I won’t be the last (plus, shhhh, my current 404 page sucks, the whole theme sucks basically but I promise I will get to it soon). Others have done this before me, in a more clear and concise manner.

But somewhere along the road, we decided that the funnier or fancier a 404 page is, the greatest it is. It has almost become an inside joke between designers and we’ve lost our aim: to provide users with clear information on how to escape from that Internet dead-end. But funny is not always useful, people.

From the top of my head, here are some rules I remember for 404 pages:

  • Strip its design down to the basics, cut down anything that does not belong there. Your logo and main navigation will be fine, but that fancy sidebar? Not so.
  • Explain in a few words what led people there. Maybe a mistyped URL or a legacy link? Tell them what’s wrong. Don’t just 404 them. What the heck is 404 anyway?
  • Provide ways to return to your frontpage and / or contact pages. A search form could help the “search-first” people too.

So, in a nutshell: a lolcat is not a proper way to greet users, however funny. A lolcat with a proper explanation, some “emergency exit” links and maybe a search form: now we’re talkin’.

Subscribe to my management & leadership newsletter
Why “proudly” not supporting IE6 is bad
Quick Tip: Centered Fake Floats