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Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Defensive Design for the Web

Two members of the 37signals team set out to write a book on contingency design, and successfully highlight 40 important guidelines for website development. Unfortunately, that’s all they do, and DDFTW reads like a PowerPoint presentation without any substantial content.

37signals are giants in the web standards community. They have practically defined Web 2.0 with Basecamp, Backpack, Writeboard and other applications (not to mention Ruby on Rails), and last I checked, their Signal vs. Noise blog enjoyed almost 20,000 RSS readers.

But clever blog writers and talented developers do not necessarily make good book writers. Their one and only book, Defensive Design for the Web, is a thin and spartan effort that sets out to teach readers about contingency design. But what could have made a truly informative read falls far short of any expectations. Instead of a treasure trove of knowledge from the community’s usability experts, we are instead presented with a half-hearted collection of mini case studies.

Contingency design is an important topic, and one that has recently been addressed in other books, such as Dan Cederholm’s latest, Bulletproof Web Design. 404 pages must be professional and informative, search engines must be intuitive and customizable, error messages must be detailed and informative. In other words, usability for when things go wrong. It seems like a “no duh” concept, but many websites simply fail to provide visitors with helpful, usable constructs to get them back on the right path.

DDFTW addresses all these things, but only in the most obvious way. The entire book is simply a string of tiny case studies, each a single screenshot with maybe two or three sentences of supporting explanation. Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried, the two members of 37signals who wrote this book, let other people’s work do all the talking, with every entry taking the tone of “See? I told you so.” Sites are given thumbs up or thumbs down. There is almost zero analysis, guidelines or code examples. There is no discussion beyond the most vanilla, palpable high-level concepts — the nuances of contingency design are left for the reader to disseminate from the authors’ cliff notes.

Call me old fashioned, but I like authors who put time and effort into their topic. One of the best web development books I have read is Joe Clark’s Building Accessible Websites for two important reasons. First, Joe has personality. His arrogance may turn off some, but he speaks with humor and authority. Second, he dissects his material to the finest detail — he covers all his bases, talks about everything that needs to be talked about, and leaves the reader with a complete picture of the soul of accessibility.

Linderman and Fried do the opposite. Defensive Design for the Web reads like a corporate PowerPoint presentation. The “40 Guidelines” spread across eight chapters are just giant bullet points. They address the highlights of contingency design, but nothing else. Most pages are more than half empty, the writing is clipped to a needlessly abbreviated state, and you’ll find yourself flipping the 236 pages faster and faster as you quickly discover most of the content repeats itself.

Throughout the book, the 37signals pair offers sound advice. Make sure your 404 pages have your logo and a search field. Make sure shopping carts have no distractions. Make sure your writing is concise and informative. Fine. Good material for 100-page ebook, but not for a $25 dead-tree version.

I would not recommend this book to the freelance developer looking for value, unless you find a used one for less than $10. I would, however, recommend this book to a team of in-house or agency developers working on large sites. It covers enough best practices for just about any web application, and its short enough that each member will only need a day or two each to absorb the content.

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