A lot of things have gotten nicer over the years. Features are added to OSes that make life so much easier, gadgets become slicker and better at knowing what we want to do. We all know that sigh of “ahh, why didn’t they do that before!”

Also, most people customise their 404 error pages to be pretty and user friendly.

So why, why are mail errors still so horrible? Here’s a typical example:

From: Mail Delivery Subsystem
Subject: Returned mail: see transcript for details
The original message was received at Mon, 12 Nov 2007 17:39:25 GMT
from xxxx.watershed.co.uk [195.10.250.xxx]

   ----- The following addresses had permanent fatal errors -----
    (reason: 550 5.1.1 No such user hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis)

   ----- Transcript of session follows -----
... while talking to gmail-smtp-in.l.google.com.:
>>> RCPT To:<hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis@gmail.com>
<<< 550 5.1.1 No such user hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis
550 5.1.1 <hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis@gmail.com>... User unknown

Reporting-MTA: dns; xxxx.watershed.co.uk
Received-From-MTA: DNS; xxxx.watershed.co.uk
Arrival-Date: Mon, 12 Nov 2007 17:39:25 GMT

Final-Recipient: RFC822; hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis@gmail.com
Action: failed
Status: 5.1.1
Remote-MTA: DNS; gmail-smtp-in.l.google.com
Diagnostic-Code: SMTP; 550 5.1.1 No such user hfjkdhfjkdsfhuis
Last-Attempt-Date: Mon, 12 Nov 2007 17:39:30 GMT

Now, I know how to read this – it’s simple, I sent an email to a nonexistent gmail address. But how is the average non-techie suppose to know that? Well, yes, by reading it – but that’s such an ungodly scrawl, no-one bothers. It just looks too hard.

The thing is, it would be useful to communicate to someone the precise nature of their error (user unknown, mail too big, it looked like spam) for the same reasons we like having customised 404 pages with useful suggestions or a search box. Not that I’m suggesting we give possible alternative emails in a bounce, that would feed the spammers, but at least some way to let someone know they’ve just mistyped, rather than thinking “oh, their email system isn’t working.”

I hereby announce my intention to get our mail system to generate nice messages back to people. They are going to be as friendly and readable as possible.

Of course, at first this will just benefit internal staff. After all, Watershed’s mail server doesn’t create the email that others get when they send undeliverable email to us: that’s their mail server’s job. But it’s a start. Given the success of our spam filtering, it should be possible to work out who is sending legitimate but undeliverable email and send them a second, readable bounce notification that explains the first one.