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Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points [Paperback]

by Matthew Linderman, Jason Fried
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 12, 2004 073571410X 978-0735714106 1

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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: New Riders; 1 edition (March 12, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 073571410X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0735714106
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 7.1 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #278,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
109 of 115 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprises in perception May 31, 2004
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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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
This book is one of the best books on web site design I've read - and I've read quite a few. New and experienced web masters will find a plethora of tips and techniques covering every facet from how to display error messages that are both meaningful and don't get lost on the page, to ensuring that search engines on your site actually return relevant information to search queries.
The topics covered are covered intelligently and in detail, and address the most common weaknesses found on too many web sites. Moreover, every topic is reinforced with examples from actual and well-known web sites. Specific areas of web site design include:
- Show the Problem (crafting visible and informative error messages)
- Language Matters (excellent tips on writing content that is descriptive, short and gets attention)
- Bulletproof Forms (take the confusion out of filling in forms and validate data)
- Missing in Action (go beyond 404 messages, and how to enhance the visitor experience even if they are using older browsers or are missing needed plug-ins)
- Lend a Helping Hand (creating help that is ...
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must if you are starting out June 6, 2004
I have read a few books on this topic and found this book to be good for those that are begining to do professional development and it also serves as a good review for those that have been developing for a while.
The book is simple in its layout and each section is easy to read by itself or you could read it from cover to cover if you wanted to. I found myself skipping around some and just skimming some areas of the book.
Its not a must have, but it is a good to have.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Copyable error messages
Sensible book that I can use to fill in error messages and plan error behavior when I am out of ideas. It's by my desk at work in case of emergencies.
Published 9 months ago by Kincaid
5.0 out of 5 stars Still relevant
Defensive Design for the Web was written in 2004, but design issues described in this book are still relevant. Read more
Published 11 months ago by laug
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Makes You Aware of Not-So-Obvious Issues Your Site Must...
As a former marketing consultant and current Internet marketing manager who does a lot of web site work, I can definitely say that this is a book that every web designer should... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Mark Harmon
5.0 out of 5 stars Simple but effective; amazing and essential reading
You won't learn any in-depth technical knowledge from this book. Instead you will be exposed to everyday common sense - something that is rarer than gold and so obvious that it is... Read more
Published on August 19, 2011 by dogoferis
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome Examples!
All of these guidelines seem so simple to follow and I can see how these would really have a positive impact on customer experience. Read more
Published on September 21, 2010 by eugenebinx
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read for every software developer
Software development is much too often considered a technical issue. This book takes the perspective of the user. Read more
Published on April 14, 2010 by Erik Deboutte
5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensable resource
Some reviewers said that the book was too shallow, too wordy and focused on well-known problems. If book content is so obvious, why do we so often forget about it? Read more
Published on April 23, 2009 by Robert Drózd
2.0 out of 5 stars It is what it is
This book is basically a comparison of good & bad designs as related to the topics in the subtitle. There is not much depth to any of the examples so it feels like this is the... Read more
Published on May 11, 2008 by bekalekah
1.0 out of 5 stars only for beginers
If you already have some design experience, or use the web a lot in your daily life, or just have common sense you will most likely find this book utterly useless. Read more
Published on February 4, 2007 by Dmitry
4.0 out of 5 stars Common sense distilled
This book is a nice collection of what should be common sense rules (obviously common sense is not so common, as the examples of actual web sites in the book prove). Read more
Published on September 9, 2006 by Ivan Pepelnjak
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