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Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points Paperback – Mar 2 2004

4.7 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: New Riders; 1 edition (March 2 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 073571410X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0735714106
  • Product Dimensions: 17.9 x 1.4 x 23 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 399 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #464,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From the Back Cover

Let's admit it: Things will go wrong online. No matter how carefully you design a site, no matter how much testing you do, customers still encounter problems. So how do you handle these inevitable breakdowns? With defensive design. In this book, the experts at 37signals (whose clients include Microsoft, Qwest,, and Clear Channel) will show you how.

Defensive design is like defensive driving brought to the Web. The same way drivers must always be on the lookout for slick roads, reckless drivers, and other dangerous scenarios, site builders must constantly search for trouble spots that cause visitors confusion and frustration. Good site defense can make or break the customer experience.

In these pages, you'll see hundreds of real-world examples from companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo that show the right (and wrong) ways to get defensive. You'll learn 40 guidelines to prevent errors and rescue customers if a breakdown occurs. You'll also explore how to evaluate your own site's defensive design and improve it over the long term.

This book is a must read for designers, programmers, copywriters, and any other site decision-makers who want to increase usability and customer satisfaction.

About the Author

Chicago-based 37signals ( is a team of web design and usability specialists dedicated to simple, and usable, customer-focused design. 37signals popularized the concept of contingency/defensive design in various articles and white papers and via the web site The team also has conducted workshops and presentations on the topic for a variety of conferences and companies.

37signals clients include Microsoft, Qwest,, Clear Channel, Panera Bread, Meetup, Performance Bike, and Work has been featured in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post, on CNN, and in numerous other publications. Team members have appeared as featured speakers at AIGA Risk/Reward, Activ8, South By Southwest, HOW Design Conference, ForUse, and other conferences. Additional information can be found at

This book is authored by Matthew Linderman with Jason Fried. Other members of the 37signals team include Ryan Singer and Scott Upton.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
While reading this book many experienced web designers will dismiss it as a collection of obvious techniques. Don't be fooled by that perception. I gave this book to my team with a mandate that it serve as a framework for usability for all corporate intranet projects. I was immediately deluged with protests from a few team members claiming "we already do this".
Skeptical, I sat with those who made the claims, and we compared our techniques against those this excellent book proposes using live web pages on our intranet. Surprise. We did not measure up, and were certainly not "already doing this".
Phase two, I had one member of my team reengineer one of the smaller internal web sites on our intranet using the techniques given in this book. Business users gave the results high marks, and my team began accepting the book as the official usability guide.
Result: this book has made a measurable difference in the quality of internal web sites we are designing and deploying for various lines of business within our corporation. It is now embraced by my team, and is used as a standard of good practice in web usability. The advice provided in the book has also resulted in less support calls to our team, freeing them to work on design and deployment instead of answering end user questions.
Moral: do not let the surface simplicity of this book fool you. While its contents and advice may seem obvious, chances are that your team is not following those obvious design rules.
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Format: Paperback
I have just finished reading Defensive Design for the Web, written by the fine folks at 37signals. The book is divided into 10 chapters, the first 9 broken down into 40 "guidelines". The guidelines cover all areas of defensive design, or "contingency design", as mentioned throughout the book. These guidelines are used to drive home the overall purpose of the chapter.
The writers keep the technical talk to a minimum, and really focus on what contingency design is, how it helps users, and how it is implemented in various sites around the web, if it is implemented at all. It also gives pointers on how to avoid these pitfalls in your own development. Also, it gives alternative examples to prove a point, relating it to something physical rather than electronic.
One example is comparing the annoying flash ads that appear on top of sites, disabling the functionality of certain elements, to trying to leave a travel agent office, and instead, the agent has blocked the door and keeps handing you brochures.
The sites chosen by the author as examples are very popular sites that a majority of readers have at least heard of if not visited. They range in variance from search engines, to e-commerce sites, to general sites with little application implementation. Many sites are mentioned in multiple chapters, sometimes having great contingency design for what the chapter is about, sometimes not. It is interesting to see that some sites succeed in certain areas while at the same time failing in others.
The "Head to Head" features are also great. This takes to sites that would be seen as competitors (Barnes and Noble vs. Amazon, K-mart vs. Wal-Mart, Foot Locker vs. Finish Line, etc.) and shows how they each handle the same contingency design element in different ways.
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Format: Paperback
I've read the other reviews on this site and the negative ones seem to think the stuff in this book is rehashed or just common knowledge. I guess they didn't need this book. However, there are quite a lot of sites out there with horrible interfaces that could be made better if only they WOULD read "Defensive Design for the Web." So obviously there are those out there who CAN benefit from it.
This is not strictly a book for web designers. It is a great one for business owners and those who actually pay the bills for web design. It helps explain why something is bad if they have a paricular pet peeve about doing something you think is plain bad design.
Being a web developer, I can't say everything in it was something I didn't know. Some of it's just plain common sense. What I really liked was that it's short, to the point, and has an abundance of examples of both how to do something and how NOT to do it. If you want to create a better user experience, get this book.
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Format: Paperback
Target Audience
Web site designers/developers who need to learn how to reduce the frustration factor in their sites.
This book covers the subject of how to code web sites that gracefully handle unexpected conditions encountered by visitors.
The book is divided into the following chapters:
Understanding Defensive Design; Show The Problem; Language Matters; Bulletproof Forms; Missing In Action; Lend A Helping Hand; Get Out Of The Way; Search And Rescue; Out Of Stocks and Unavailable Items; The Contingency Design Test; Contingency Design
We've all visited web sites that promise cool things. But somewhere along the way, you do something that is not quite what the program expected. Maybe you entered an incorrect date or missed a required field. Your joy quickly disappears as the site makes you jump through a number of hoops to correct the data or get back on track. They end up losing a customer without even knowing it. If you're a web developer, this is a critical issue for you, and the book Defensive Design for the Web is what you need to start correcting these issues.
The authors present 40 guidelines that cover different aspects of defensive design, or contingency design as they call it. Some are pretty basic, such as "Always identify errors the same way". Others require a bit more thought in the coding of the site, such as "Assist form dropouts by saving information". But instead of just stating the guideline and moving on, they take it a step further. Using familiar and popular web sites, they provide "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" examples of each guideline. By seeing the guidelines actually applied in real-life, you are much more likely to understand the problems associated with it.
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