REVIEW - Defensive Design for the Web - How to Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points


Defensive Design for the Web - How to Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points


Matthew Linderman, Jason Fried, 37signals (Firm)




New Riders Pub (2004)




Francis Glassborow


June 2004



I find it sad that books such as this one are necessary. What I find even sadder is that the examples of bad practice so often come from the sites of major international companies.

The book consists of 40 guidelines for websites that interact with the surfer. These guidelines are broken down in to eight chapters that are book-ended by an opening chapter explaining defensive design and a closing one that gives you a nice little design test to apply to any site that you want to assess.

Every one of the forty guidelines is 'obvious' even if most are widely honoured in the breach. For example Guideline 1 is:

Give an error message that's noticeable at a glance.

The author gives three examples of bad practice.
which is a yellow pages like site covering a number of US States. topsellers
were the other two sites. Of course, as you might expect, the problems detailed in the book are no longer ones with these sites (at least they had the sense to act when they were held up as an example). The last guideline (40) is

Show similar items that are available.

You have to know the context of that guideline for it to make complete sense. Chapter 9 is titled: Out of Stocks and Unavailable Items . A commercial organisation that does not offer alternatives when an item is out of stock isn't exactly trying very hard. One of the examples of bad practice is 'Barnes& Noble'. No doubt they will blame Amazon for all their commercial problems, but it is noticeable the Amazon has worked very hard to make its sites easy to use. I think they can still do better.

If you work for a company that promotes itself over the Internet, or if you have your own site where you hope for readers to interact with you, I think this book might be worth reading. Remember that if your employers are not promoting themselves well the chances of your having to find another job go up. Positive suggestions and examples are more helpful and this is where this book scores. The guidelines are a useful base from which to work, the examples of bad practice can increase the comfort factor for those who are being criticised and the examples of good practice show that it can be done.Professional Development

Book cover image courtesy of Open Library.