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..
I must admit, I’ve always thought my own website was quite visitor friendly, despite occasional nagging doubts in my head saying otherwise. Still, how can you test your own website for usability? If you already know where everything is, it’s hard to act dumb. So, when the opportunity came up to purchase a book that would be able to point me in the right direction of things I might have missed, I went for it!
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.