I didn’t invent this term, but boosting the signal gives me a good excuse for a rant against its referent.
Lassie was a fictional dog. In all her literary, film, and TV adaptations the most recurring plot device was some character getting in trouble (in the print original, two brothers lost in a snowstorm; in popular memory “Little Timmy fell in a well”, though this never actually happened in the movies or TV series) and Lassie running home to bark at other humans to get them to follow her to the rescue.
In software, “Lassie error” is a diagnostic message that barks “error” while being comprehensively unhelpful about what is actually going on. The term seems to have first surfaced on Twitter in early 2020; there is evidence in the thread of at least two independent inventions, and I would be unsurprised to learn of others.
In the Unix world, a particularly notorious Lassie error is what the ancient line-oriented Unix editor “ed” does on a command error. It says “?” and waits for another command – which is especially confusing since ed doesn’t have a command prompt. Ken Thompson had an almost unique excuse for extreme terseness, as ed was written in 1973 to run on a computer orders of magnitude less capable than the embedded processor in your keyboard.
Herewith the burden of my rant: You are not Ken Thompson, 1973 is a long time gone, and all the cost gradients around error reporting have changed. If you ever hear this term used about one of your error messages, you have screwed up. You should immediately apologize to the person who used it and correct your mistake.
Part of your responsibility as a software engineer, if you take your craft seriously, is to minimize the costs that your own mistakes or failures to anticipate exceptional conditions inflict on others. Users have enough friction costs when software works perfectly; when it fails, you are piling insult on that injury if your Lassie error leaves them without a clue about how to recover.
Really this term is unfair to Lassie, who as a dog didn’t have much of a vocabulary with which to convey nuances. You, as a human, have no such excuse. Every error message you write should contain a description of what went wrong in plain language, and – when error recovery is possible – contain actionable advice about how to recover.
This remains true when you are dealing with user errors. How you deal with (say) a user mistake in configuration-file syntax is part of the user interface of your program just as surely as the normally visible controls are. It is no less important to get that communication right; in fact, it may be more important – because a user encountering an error is a user in trouble that he needs help to get out of. When Little Timmy falls down a well you constructed and put in his path, your responsibility to say something helpful doesn’t lessen just because Timmy made the immediate mistake.
A design pattern I’ve seen used successfully is for immediate error messages to include both a one-line summary of the error and a cookie (like “E2317”) which can be used to look up a longer description including known causes of the problem and remedies. In a hypothetical example, the pair might look like this:
Out of memory during stream parsing (E1723)
E1723: Program ran out of memory while building the deserialized internal representation of a stream dump. Try lowering the value of GOGC to cause more frequent garbage collections, increasing the size of your swap partition, or moving to hardware with more RAM.
The key point here is that the user is not left in the lurch. The messages are not a meaningless bark-bark, but the beginning of a diagnosis and repair sequence.
If the thought of improving user experience in general leaves you unmoved, consider that the pain you prevent with an informative error message is rather likely to be your own, as you use your software months or years down the road or are required to answer pesky questions about it.
As with good comments in your code, it is perhaps most motivating to think of informative error messages as a form of anticipatory mercy towards your future self.