[Book Review] 37 Signals : Defensive Design for the Web

New Riders, ISBN 073571410X

One of the key problems in testing your own sites, is that you inevitably use them "correctly" - ie, in the way you designed them to be used. Thinking up a full range of deliberate mistakes to make - or finding missing things that you didn't think to add in the first place - can be at best tricky. Ideally you need to test intensively with another person, ideally someone non-technical who has no prior experience with the site. Unfortunately, this can be both time consuming and expensive, and for personal sites especially, impractical.

This book provides a way to minimise those costs and delays, and thus reduce - but not remove - the testing required. Written in a non-technical tone throughout, it provides two resources to help in the effective design of a site. Firstly, a list of common pitfalls to avoid, and good practice to adopt. These are presented in a sequence of "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" examples that serve to allow you to learn from other designer's mistakes as well as their good practices.

So far so good. The examples are generally well chosen, and the issues with them - the reasons they confuse "the average viewer" - well explained. Additionally, the risks of annoying your users are made clear - they won't trust the site and may well simply give up on it.

However the "Joe Average" tone of the book can occasionally border on irritating. The smallest of design changes are suggested in the same casual way as major functionality enhancements, as if the authors have no understanding of the complexity of what they suggest. In other times they may seem to be teaching you to suck eggs, as they state the blatantly obvious. This can potentially lead the technical reader to experience that same irritation they may often experience with users who "fail to understand" website basics.

However, that's really the point that this book is making, and if you give the writers the benefit of the doubt as to their understanding of what they're asking for, it can serve as a genuinely useful resource to help you understand your users' needs. This in turn will allow the users to understand, and thus enjoy and trust, your site. The complex suggestions can make a real and unique improvement to the user experience of a site, and the "blatantly obvious" often isn't, unless you've already covered it. Having a checklist of "common sense points" (which is primarily what this book is) can be invaluable to make sure you don't miss anything.

The second resource in this book is a checklist - a scored test - of the points made in the first section. This helps you apply the rather generic requirements of the first part to your own site. It's a shorter section, but it makes the book distinctly more useful.

Having noted what this book can tell you - and it's a very useful book within its self-defined constraints - there are several areas it won't cover. There is no mention of accessibility (in the 508 sense), standards compliance or cross-browser compatibility, all of which are critical to good site design. But then, there are plenty of other good books on those topics (one of which I'll cover shortly). "Defensive Design" covers the way your site should interact with users, and does it well. So, with a caution not to get irritated with it when it seems to state the obvious or calmly suggest significant amounts of work, I'm pleased to be able to recommend this book.
Posted by parsingphase, 2004-05-29 13:40

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