Defensive Design for the Web [book review]

Defensive Design for the Web is an encompassing guide to creating successful error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points. This is an important subject as website visitors should find their way around whenever something goes wrong during their visit to a website.

The book is written as a series of guidelines that are illustrated using rich examples from real websites; this makes for an easy and interesting read. Each guideline can be studied separately and usually an immediate action will come from them.

Below is a list of the 40 guidelines provided in the book:

  1. Give an error message that’s noticeable at a glance
  2. Use color, icons, and text to clearly highlight and explain the problem area
  3. Always identify errors the same way
  4. Eliminate the need for back-and-forth clicking
  5. Don’t use language that might be unfamiliar to your customers
  6. Keep text brief and easy to understand
  7. Be polite
  8. Highlight either required or optional fields
  9. Accept entries in all common formats
  10. Provide sample entries, pull-downs, and formatting hints to ensure clean data
  11. Explicitly state limits to characters, number of entries, and so forth
  12. If customers can’t choose it, don’t show it
  13. Validate entries (as soon as possible)
  14. Button up: Eliminate the Reset button and disable the Submit button after it’s clicked
  15. Assist form dropouts by saving information
  16. Offer customized “Page Not Found” error pages
  17. Successfully redirect near-miss URLs
  18. Use ALT tags for images
  19. Don’t shut out visitors with old technology: Offer alternative versions and technology upgrade information
  20. Answer questions on the same page they arise
  21. Offer an easy-to-use “Help” section and provide clear links to it
  22. Let customers help themselves through online forums and training sessions
  23. Provide a human fallback plan (help via chat, phone, or email)
  24. Answer emails quickly and effectively
  25. Help login with tips or email
  26. Don’t disable the browser’s Back button
  27. Make it fast, not cute
  28. Don’t force registration
  29. Don’t block content with ads
  30. Eliminate unnecessary navigation during multi-step processes
  31. Offer a clear explanation when no results are found or inexact matches are shown
  32. Anticipate common errors and provide relevant results
  33. Too many results? Offer features that let searchers refine and filter results
  34. No results? Let customers easily expand search criteria
  35. Offer tips on how to improve results
  36. Don’t rely on advanced searches
  37. Be upfront about item unavailability
  38. If a product will be available at a later date, explain when, provide product details, and take advance orders
  39. Offer email notification
  40. Show similar items that are available

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Book Description*

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.

Author Information*

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.

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* Information from publisher website