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Defensive Web Design

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Last week ended with a great read in Getting Started With Defensive Web Design by Ian Lurie, Smashing Magazine, 27-May-2011.


In the book Defensive Design for the Web, 37Signals defines defensive design as such: “Design for when things go wrong.”


Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Defensive design anticipates both user and website error. Then, it tries to prevent those errors and provide help to get the user back on track. Defensive design for the Web usually focuses on the most common points of failure: forms, search, the address bar and server problems.



The underlying premise of defensive design is that it is often easier/cheaper to retain or up-sell existing visitors than acquire new ones. I will paraphrase his example: if your current conversion rate (define as you will) is 2.5% (rough web average) then conversion optimisation to 3% equals an additional 5 customers per 1000 visitors. At 2.5% it would take an additional 200 new visitors to generate 5 new customers. An additional 0.5% conversion rate or acquiring 200 new visitors, which is likely the best ROI?


He then tackles the 'lowest hanging fruit' with illustrative examples (summarised):

* Inline And Contextual Help

Inline help offers pointers on specific items on the page.

Contextual help provides guidance relevant to the current page or process.


* Slow Connections

Plan ahead and have a website that still works when bandwidth shrinks.


* On-Site Search

Anticipate misspellings and typos and turn on-site search into an asset.


* Form Validation And Error Handling

...defensive form design does the following:

---Preserves visitor data

---Highlights errors with clear graphics and text

---Doesn’t make the visitor feel like a criminal

Note: form design and error handling is a deep subject upon which entire books have been written. Forms are serious stuff.


* “Page Not Found” Errors

Great websites customize their “Page not found” area (also called a 404 page), by providing options, explaining what happened or even injecting a little humor into what can otherwise be a frustrating experience.


You don’t have to make the 404 page a work of art. Just make sure that if a detour is required, you do the following:

---Reassure visitors that you’re still there by branding the page.

---At a minimum, link back to the home page.

---Ideally, provide concrete options for getting back on track.


* Detect Holes In Your Defenses

...you can spot subtler issues and their solutions using some basic Web analytics.

---The Checkout Funnel

---The Missing Link (page)


* Avoid Common Mistakes

---Mistaken Assumptions

---Fake 404s

---Limited Landing Pages

---Lousy Copy

---Limited Browser Compatibility


* Good For The Brand, Good For The Business

Almost any brand can benefit from good customer service. Defensive design lets you deliver great service effortlessly when your customers need it most. It builds sales and makes customers love you. So, hope for the best and plan for the worst.



A great primer on a valuable mindset. I highly recommend that you read and apply.


Having done so, try searching Cre8 as part of your further research as all of the above has been discussed here in more or less detail over the years. What he has written is not new but has been carefully packaged for easy digestion. :)

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Co-incidentally, Search Engine Land published 5 Website Tips To Decrease User Frustration by Kim Krause Berg (aka cre8pc), 27-May-2011.


Consider that every web page visitor has a goal or two in mind once they arrive from a search or link from somewhere.


Once they figure out where to begin a task that will help them achieve that goal, their one big hope is that your content is designed to help them along the way. It’s amazing how many websites fall down on the job of simply answering questions or providing important information at the precise moment it’s needed to complete a task.


To ease some common frustration complaints, try the following ideas:

1. Put accepted payment methods on the product page along with its description.


2. Never make invasive questions a requirement to completing a form without first disclosing why its vital information you need. ...If your analysis shows high interest followed by sudden abandonment, study your task process, promotional offer, content and instructions to make repairs.


3. Mystery and intrigue belong in a good movie or book, not your website.


4. ...Be logical where you place social marketing icons for plug-ins that share information or link to Twitter or Facebook. ...Related: Offer a reason why your site visitors might be interested in your Twitter or Facebook activities.


5. Please make error messages that are pleasant, not in red text and in all caps and offer solutions for the user error. Highlight where the error occurred to avoid user guessing. Better yet, offer examples for how you want form field data formatted and add user instructions wherever it makes sense to increase their confidence and trust in your company or motives.


There are two rules of thumb I like to go by :

* First, anticipate user questions.

* Second, answer these questions the moment they have it.



Nice companion piece to emphasise the importance of these issues.


I guess if there was a third essay on this topic last Friday we'll have to duck and take cover...

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.

---Auric Goldfinger

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