404 error pages are a nightmare to both users and website owners/developers. Imagine you found a link to a blog post you find really interesting. But after clicking the link, instead of bringing you to the article, you are met with, “404. Page not found.” Needless to say, it’s a very negative experience, especially if you’re really interested or you really need the link you want to visit.
But that being said, we sometimes cannot simply avoid 404s. So, although it’s ideal to avoid 404s altogether, perhaps the better approach is to find a way to make 404s work in our favor in the event users face one.
Before we talk about the best practices and tips we can do for our 404s, let us briefly talk about what are 404s and why they are there, to begin with.
What Are 404 Error Pages?
Simply put, 404 error pages are pages shown when a user tried to access a page that cannot be located at the link he or she is trying to access it to at the given time. If a blog article is removed or a certain page’s link is change, users may face a 404 error page once they tried to access the old link.
The Problem With Default 404 Page Design
By default, 404 pages do nothing other than tell the users that the page they are trying to access cannot be found or located via the link they’re accessing, at least at the given time. In other words, 404 pages are designed, by default, to be purely technical. It is nothing more than a cold message saying the page you want to view cannot be located, hence please just go back to your previous page.
From here, we can already see the problem. Imagine you are already frustrated for not being able to access the page you want to access. To compound it, you’ll be met with a plain, dull designed page telling you that the page you wanted to access cannot be accessed.
5 Best Practices and Tips For a Better 404 Page
Thankfully, there are things that designers can do to make their 404 pages less frustrating and possibly even inviting and encouraging. With a bit of insight and creativity, you can actually turn that supposedly dull page into a branding opportunity or, at least, add aesthetic value to your website.
When designing a 404 page, here are some of the things and practices that you can apply to your design:
- Use 404 pages as a UX/UI opportunity
- Explain what caused the error
- 404 pages are frustrating, but don’t rule them out either
- Add some humor
- Prevention is better than cure
1) Use 404 pages as a UX/UI opportunity
As mentioned earlier, the default 404 page is just a dull, plain page informing users that the page they are trying to access cannot be located. And typically, a default 404 page will simply ask the user to turn back to the previous page.
But there’s more you can do to incorporate a 404 page to your website. For starters, you can keep the usability and functionality of your website even on a 404 page. Even though it’s a 404 page, you can still offer key links such as the homepage. And don’t forget the search bar – this gives the user the option to search more on your website and move on from there rather than just returning to the previous page.
2) Explain what caused the error
Some 404 pages don’t even explain what caused the error to begin with. If it did explain the error, it’s usually written in a code-like manner. But it’s people who read these 404 pages, not a robot!
Let the users know what caused the 404 error. For instance, maybe it’s a wrong or expired link. If so, then let them know. You can write something like, “Page cannot be accessed because the link provided is wrong or expired. Please fix the link or return to homepage”. When you give explanations like this, not only will users know what went wrong, but they can possibly even fix the problem themselves.
3) 404 pages are frustrating, but don’t rule them out either
Some designers decided not to use 404 pages altogether. After all, if 404 pages only cause frustration, why not just remove it altogether? Instead of sending a user to a 404 page, why not just bring them to the homepage?
While it’s true that 404 pages are frustrating, it’s still not a good idea to rule them out. Simply sending the user to the homepage because of a broken or expired link will mostly leave them confused. They don’t know if the link is expired or if it’s just an error. They may even try to go over the link again and again until they finally realize that they are indeed dealing with a broken link.
So keep the 404 page. It may not be pleasing to the customer, but so is being confused when you’re being redirected to the homepage.
4) Add some humor
Adding a bit of humor in your 404 page can help reduce the frustration experienced by the user. For instance, you can add cute drawings on the page as you apologize for the error. These gestures may seem small and simple, but it can make a difference in your user’s experience.
That being said, be sure that the humor is appropriate. There are instances where humor may not even be the appropriate approach. But in any case, whenever possible, it does not hurt to add a bit of it.
5) Prevention is better than cure
We have mentioned earlier that it’s virtually impossible to avoid 404 errors, and that’s true. There are instances when users visit a dead or broken link, hence leading to the error. But it does not mean that there’s nothing we can do to avoid or prevent these errors.
One way to “prevent” 404 errors is by making sure that the links you use are updated. Check for potential broken links and take the time to fix and update them. You can use tools such as the 404 Checker to find broken links and have them fixed.