by Al Sacco

My Vision of an Open, User-Friendly Error-Reporting System

Jul 24, 20075 mins
Enterprise Applications

Earlier this month, I decided to do some digging into Microsoft’s Windows Error Reporting (WER) system to see if I could figure out what exactly happens when I send off a report after a browser crash. To make a lengthy tale a wee bit shorter, the (non)response I got from Microsoft was less than helpful, and the whole experience left me thinking that there has got to be a better system for bug reporting and monitoring—one that caters to users.

I also decided that I’m not sending any more Windows Error Reports until Microsoft opens up its gates and lets me in on what exactly happens to my report when I click that “send” button. (Call me childish, but I ain’t sharin’ if Redmond’s not.) In fact, I don’t just want information on what happens to my report after it leaves my PC, I want to know what’s happening to all of the reports Microsoft receives, as well as whether or not the software giant is working on a fix and what bugs are top priority.

If you’ve surfed the Internet or even read a newspaper within the last year, you’ve likely heard of the uber-popular, user-populated tech news website Digg. You may not, however, have had a reason to visit Digg Labs’ Stack, a Flash-based visualization application that displays in vertical bar-graph format as many as 100 popular stories on the news site at any given time, as well as a real-time representations of users voting up, or “digging” stories. Digg Stack also uses colors to signify various levels of story popularity.

Here’s a screenshot:


Shortly after posting my WER blog entry, my colleague and Editorial Director Chris Lindquist and I were chatting about possible improvements to WER, and somehow Stack ended up on his monitor. As I watched the blocks fall from above and the various names of “diggers” float across the screen, it occurred to me that an error reporting system akin to Stack would answer many of the questions I had for Microsoft in a single glance.

For instance, an error reporting system that functioned like Stack could show which bugs were considered high-priority at the time by coloring a column a specific color. Red seems fitting. Whenever users submit error reports, they could receive confirmation and bug identification numbers. And each stack, or reported error, could be labeled with an ID number or brief description for identification, so users could scroll over columns to see which bugs they represented. New error report submissions could appear in the form or blocks that fall from above and land on the appropriate error column, though each submission would need to be anonymous for obvious privacy reasons.

I’m not looking for specific numbers of error messages received—a topic Microsoft is notoriously tight-lipped on. Perhaps a few hundred reports received could be represented by one single block, and users wouldn’t need to know that exact number. I really just want to know whether an error that’s affecting my PC is being addressed, what kind of progress is being made, if a third-party has been notified that their product is causing system errors and if they’ve made any progress toward a fix.

The system I envision could also tell users what kind of progress a company has made toward fixing an error with color-coding. For example, if a company determines it needs to address an issue, a column that was red could turn partially orange to show progress is being made. A section of the column could remain red to specify that it was previously a top priority but it’s being worked on. An error that’s orange could turn to yellow as the company nears a solution. (Think Homeland Security Advisory System.) And another different color, say purple, could be used to specify that a third-party organization is working on a fix. Eventually, once an error is resolved, the column could turn blue at the top to represent a complete fix or resolution.

I don’t pretend to know all of the in-and-outs of WER, or any other such system, and I’m not suggesting my vision of an open, user-friendly error reporting system is flawless; rather, I’m simply saying that if there is a system out there that provides simple answers to the questions I have about error reporting I’ve never seen or even heard of it.

Which leads me to my first question for you: Do you know of any error reporting systems that readily provide information like fix priority, fix status and the cause of the problem? WER does provide information on the cause of specific errors, if available. For instance, a Flash-based ad on recently caused my Internet Explorer 7 browser to crash repeatedly, and the WER message I received identified the problem as an with issue Adobe Flash.ocx. It even told me that Adobe had not yet issued a fix. But my ideal error reporting system would take this a step further, and tell if Adobe had identified the bug as a priority and what type of progress it’s making.

Maybe you think WER or Mozilla’s current error reporting systems are fine just the way they are. By all means, tell me so. But please also explain why you feel the way you do.

Finally, I’d love for you to share reasons why a Digg-Stack-like error reporting system would or wouldn’t work for you, as well as your ideas for error reporting systems that would meet your personal wants and needs. Dig deep into your imagination. Be creative. I’m all ears…