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on 21 June 2006
Defensive Design for the Web: How to Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Online Crisis Points, by 37signals, Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried, really should be called "Examples of Bad Error Messages, Forms, etc" because although there were lots of pretty screenshots in the book, there wasn't much in the way of real solutions -- technical or otherwise..

In the book, there were no solid examples of what we should definitely do or not do, and using advice from the sites given a thumbs-up was not necessarily a great idea because the ratings were inconsistant: on page 62 nordstrom.com were given a thumbs down for specifying the format of user-inputted telephone numbers (no hypens or spaces) and yet on page 69, expedia.com and etrade.com were given a thumbs up for doing exactly the same thing (stating that social security numbers must contain the hypens). If nordstrom must accept telephone numbers in multiple formats, surely etrade should do the same with SS numbers?

One of the most annoying things about the entire book was the constant use of the incorrect term "alt tags". Tags are surrounded by < and >, alt is not, therefore alt is an attribute. This is the kind of basic HTML-related stuff that I would expect an 'expert' web-based company such as 37signals to know. What's more, there was an entire chapter dedicated to the lack of alt "tags" on various websites, and yet no clear instructions on what good alt text should say.

Throughout the entire book there was only one teensy-tiny paragraph on international forms and the need to accept multiple types of data, and yet this book is sold worldwide. America is not the only country in the world and so I would have liked to have seen more advice offered for those who're unsure on how to approach forms for a larger audience (particularly as I'm a Brit myself).

Overall, despite the varying negative points, the book itself is relatively decent. It brought up some little things that I have missed on my own website, such as, what to do if a visitor returns 0 results from a search (i.e. offer suggestions/alternatives instead), but generally contained nothing but screenshots. I would have liked to have seen more specific advice, and a little less focus on American based websites/forms.
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on 7 April 2009
This book points out the blatantly obvious, and that's not a problem in itself because common sense often only becomes obvious once somebody points it out; and if all these issues were so obvious to all but the novice we wouldn't be coming across them constantly.

However, this book has far too little substance to be worth anything like its cover price. It glosses over the problems of forms, particularly those to be filled in by non-Americans, and the rest is just too light. This information would be far better presented on a website or as a free to download e-book. Absolutely not worth the money - there are far better usability books out there.
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on 7 April 2005
The authors use 40 guidelines to tell you things that even starting web developers already know. In fact throughout the whole book â€" which is extremely light reading, since nearly all the pages contain mostly white space and screen shots â€" I haven't come across a single noteworthy solution to design problems.
Indeed, all this book does is list commonly known mistakes, which would perhaps be interesting for the total novice, yet, it provides zero solutions.
Four major things are wrong with this book:
1) Most of the advice is truly gratuitous, like “Guideline 6: Keep text brief and easy to understand�, or “Guideline7: Be polite�, or “Guideline18: Use ALT tags for images� or “Guideline 24: Answer emails quickly and effectively. That is stating the obvious like “check your spelling�. Yes, they advice this as well.
2) Only a small part of the book deals with international issues and most part only applies to local American websites with local target groups. A lot of the examples of websites they approve of, wouldn't stand a change when a Frenchman, Italian, Arab, etc. visits. This book gives an all but global perspective on accessibility.
3) Some design rules they propose are actually very debatable at least. Moreover, quite a few guidelines contradict each other.
4) They mention some major problems like; missing 404 pages, lacking form validation, etc. Yet â€" and this is absolutely inexcusable â€" abide from some screen shots, they provide no real solutions, you are totally left in the dark.
So, after 236 mostly empty pages all they have told me that it is better to have a better website.
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on 7 May 2004
Murphy's Law applies just as much in the online world as in the physical one: if something can go wrong, it will. How we deal with those situations is what makes the difference between good web designers and great web designers.
37signals' book throws its readers straight in there, no messing about: screen grabs of sites, pointing out the bad design decisions and highlighting the good. Simply laid out, 37signals' book allows the examples to speak for themselves, adding just enough information to back up their reasoning and no more.
Peppered throughout the book are a selection of "head-to-head" comparisons: on the left-hand page, a site that makes a fundamental mistake; on the right, a competitor that gets it right.
This book can't make a bad designer a good one. But if you're a good designer, it will help you improve no end.
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