Defensive Design for the Web

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Download Bulletproof Forms (PDF, 569 KB) and learn how to use defensive design to create friendly forms that are easy to complete.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
Understanding Defensive Design.
2. Show the Problem
Display obvious error messages and alerts.
3. Language Matters
Provide clear instructions.
4. Bulletproof Forms
Create friendly forms that are easy to complete. (Read Chapter 4: PDF, 569 KB)
5. Missing in Action
Overcome missing pages, images, or plug-ins.
6. Lend a Helping Hand
Offer help that's actually helpful.
7. Get Out of the Way
Eliminate obstacles to conversion (e.g. unnecessary ads, registration, navigation, etc.).
8. Search and Rescue
Deliver the right results with smart search engine assistance.
9. Out of Stocks and Unavailable Items
Make sure unavailable items don't become dead ends.
10. The Contingency Design Test
Evaluate your site's defensive design.
11. Conclusion

Quote "The folks at 37signals have created an invaluable resource: tons of 'best practice' examples for ensuring that Web users can recover gracefully when things — as they inevitably will — go 'worng.'"
-Steve Krug, Author, Don't Make Me Think

Cover of Defensive Design for the Web
Buy It At Amazon

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

By 37signals

Paperback, 264 Pages
Amazon Rating: 4.5 stars
List Price: $24.99 Price: $17.49
You Save: $7.50 (30%)

It's Time To Get Defensive

  • Learn 40 guidelines to prevent errors and rescue customers if a breakdown occurs.
  • See hundreds of real-world examples from companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo that show the right (and wrong) ways to handle crisis points.
  • Evaluate your own site's defensive design with an easy-to-perform test and find out how to improve it over the long term.

Praise for the Book

Defensive Design for the Web OpenQuote "Defend yourself — listen to 37signals! If useful web design is important to you, then how can you NOT pay attention to Defensive Design? Matt and Jason break new ground on a crucial part of web design that you don't hear much about elsewhere."
-Scott Heiferman, Co-Founder, &

Quote "Defensive Design for the Web shows you how to create a good customer experience even when things go wrong. If you work in user experience or usability, you have to learn what's in this book."
-Mark Hurst, Founder, Creative Good

Defensive Design for the Web Cover With HandsQuote "The best-laid plans of mice and web developers often go awry. No matter how artfully you structure, write, and design your company's site, someone is always going to hit the wrong button, type the wrong password, or make other normal human mistakes. Anticipating errors and helping customers bounce back into the site's flow can make the difference between success and failure. This clear, easy-to-read book tells how, with a depth no related title can match. Buy it, read it, keep it close to your monitor. The customer relationship you save may be your own."
-Jeffrey Zeldman, Author, Designing With Web Standards

Quote "Don't design (or update) your web site without this book...The elegant solutions given in this book can serve as a checklist of what to consider when you're designing or improving your own site. If I had to recommend only one book on site design to new web masters this would be it."
-Mike Tarrani, Amazon Top 50 Reviewer

Quote "Defensive Design is a must read for anyone who works on the web...This precious little book will help bring in tremendous profits and pleasant web experiences. Thanks to the guys at 37signals for this incredible work."
-Donny Truong,

Quote "Designing for every possible circumstance seems either vastly expensive or just damn impossible. Well, it's not. Here's a book that tells you how to do it. It's easy for busy people to dip in and out of, and it's full of great tips."
-Drew McLellan, Author & web developer

Buy the Book

Defensive Design for the Web is available at, Barnes & Noble, Powells, Booksense, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, and other booksellers. The book's ISBN number is 073571410X.

About the Authors

Chicago-based 37signals is a team of web design and usability experts dedicated to simple, clear, and usable customer-focused design. 37signals popularized the concept of contingency/defensive design in various articles and white papers and via the Web site Our clients include Microsoft, Qwest,, Clear Channel, Panera Bread, Meetup, Performance Bike, and The team's work has been featured in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and on CNN.

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

Cover of Defensive Design for the Web
Buy It At Amazon

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

By 37signals

Paperback, 264 Pages
List Price: $24.99 Price: $17.49
You Save: $7.50 (30%)

Book Q&A;

What is the difference between defensive design and contingency design?

Essentially, they're the same thing: Defensive design (as in taking advance measures to avoid accidents) is also referred to as contingency design (as in planning for all contingencies). For the most part, the book uses the phrase contingency design. But we felt the title of "Defensive Design for the Web" would be more intuitive for readers who might be new to the concept.

What is the definition of defensive/contingency design?

Simply put, it's design for when things go wrong. To be more specific, contingency design is the error messaging, graphic design, programming, instructive text, information architecture, and customer service that prevents errors and helps visitors get back on track after a problem occurs.

What will this book teach me?

You'll learn: A) What contingency design is and why it's important, B) 40 guidelines that will help you prevent errors and rescue customers when things go wrong, C) How to make error recovery and prevention part of your long-term design process, abd D) How to evaluate your site's contingency design so you can focus on the areas that need help most.

What won't I learn from this book?

It's impossible to be all things to all readers, so let's also be clear about what this book won't do. For one thing, it won't provide specific recommendations on software or platforms to use for your site. There aren't many one-size-fits-all solutions in Web design and development, so this book purposely avoids endorsing specific products. Also, this book does not contain in-depth programming examples or code snippets. Although there are occasional notes on how to approach implementation, you'll find general guidance rather than cut and paste code.

Who should read it?

Anyone who wants to improve the customer experiences at a Web site, including: designers & information architects (see screenshots, case studies, and layout techniques that help visitors overcome problems), developers (see how leading sites deal with form validation, 404s, and other common errors), copywriters (see how clear copy keeps customers informed and on track), and project managers & executives (learn how a top-down commitment and interdepartmental cooperation can deliver bottom line results).

Can 37signals review my site or train my staff on contingency design?

Yes, 37signals offers contingency design reviews and custom training sessions on the topic. Please write or contact us for additional information.

Is there an e-book version?

The book is slated to be available via, a service that offers IT professionals instant access to download the full text of technology books. You'll need a subscription to get access though.

Do you offer a link with your Amazon affiliate ID to order the book?

Yes, any link to buy the book at from this page will use our Amazon affiliate ID and give us a commission. Needless to say, we'd be happy if you do buy the book this way. Just make sure to click on "add to cart" as soon as you get to Amazon.

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37signals Information

Get in touch and we'll review your site's defensive/contingency design or train your staff on the topic.
Download "Why Should I Hire 37signals?" (PDF, 46K) to learn why we're the smart choice.

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