The Financial Times, which has recently been sold to Nikkei, is at the forefront of economic and business journalism. But, just like The Economist's well-regarded wit, this level of professionalism and seriousness doesn't detract from its sense of humour, as evidenced by a recent development project on its website that tried to add some character to its error page.
Online natives are well aware of the notorious error 404 "page not found", which alerts users that they have ventured to moved, deleted or overloaded web pages. The Financial Times site is no exception, directing approximately 180,000 users to their error screen a day (although when you take out the bots, that decreased to 4,000).
Though informative and helpful, the FT Labs team deemed its traditional page too old fashioned and utilitarian, falling short of the well received satirical error pages developed for other websites and competing media brands.
"The web is a messy place, and people encounter 404 “Page not found” errors from FT websites all the time," it says on a post. This is a page that hasn’t had a lot of love from the technology team over the last few years, but considering that we’ve disappointed the reader by not giving them what they want, we thought we should make more of an effort with the content of the error page ... The Telegraph’s in house cartoonist features on their 404 page with a topical illustration. Bloomberg famously has a GIF of a businessman smacking a computer and then disintegrating. The Verge pokes fun at clickbait style headlines, while the BBC rolls out the famous test card."
A page like this needs to do the basics, so the team decided to emphasise the fact that there is a problem (as opposed to reasons for the problem) and it then tried four different ideas and had users vote on their favourites.
Steering away from apologies and "404" titles that litter similar error screens, it put a more humorous spin on things by explaining the problem through a range of different economic principles.
It also tried an educational approach, added a competitive element with a quiz to match definitions with different industry terms and an auto-correct effort.
Each version had a 'do you like this page?' banner and the economic theories idea won the vote.
"I think we’re in a really good place at the end of the two-week lifespan of this Labs project," said Financial Times product manager Chris Smith. "To go in that time from nothing to running a multi-variate experiment in live with the goal of improving, for our users, an experience which would normally only be a disappointing dead end is a worthwhile achievement."
If you're the kind of person who got a kick out of the what the FT Lab crew developed, the 404 subreddit has you covered with a compilation of the best error pages on the web. We're quite partial to Vice's 404 Horse, Bloomberg Business's angry salary man and Hillary Clinton's terrible pun.