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'Nothing ruins a great website… like people using it.'

This remark was made by SmashingMagazine.com writer Ian Lurie in his recent article featured on the site, Getting Started With Defensive Web Design--- a piece in which Lurie explores how the shortcomings of a website's usability can pose problems that can't be saved by even the most captivating visual design or creative content. If the user runs into a problem that can't be easily solved, it's likely that they'll simply abandon the site, never to return again as a result of their frustration. The aim of any website is to expand its audience, but it's just as important to maintain that which already exists, and defensive design focuses on just that.

So what exactly is 'defensive design'? It's a contingency plan for when design fails--- and this fail may very well be a mistake made by the user, so it's important to create a web design that is both proactive and reactive to errors. So now the question is how to design defensively.

Web design should first and foremost be proactive to potential road blocks that will leave the user banging his or her head against the wall or worse, completely uninterested in further interaction with the site. Here are some ways to avoid making someone's hate list and to instead make him or her feel like a valued visitor:

1. Never assume that the user will 'just know' their way around your site and how to use it. Create contextual help that appears on the current page or roll over inline help boxes that help guide users in the right direction and create confidence in their navigation of your site.

2. Create a website that is still functional even in the event that your images fail to upload due to slow speed or poor connections. You'll never know exactly what you're dealing with, so be positive that under no situation will your site be unusable.

3. Consider providing an on-site search option, and remember that to err is human--- features like closest-match for misspellings and auto-completion for the absentminded are great ways to ensure that search and navigation of your site are seamless.

4. Forms are the proven enemy of many users. Highlighting errors makes any mistakes clear and easy to correct. Courteous error messages prevent the user from feeling scolded or belittled, and preservation of data that has been previously entered by the user facilitates the otherwise laborious process of filling out forms.

5. Page errors are expected to occur. Finding creative and kind ways to display the 'page not found' screen never hurts, and helping the lost and confused user find his way back or to his intended destination make for a better user experience. Use analytics to determine if a reoccurring page error is fault of your own.

6. Limited landing pages or ambiguous copy can stir up trouble as well. Be sure to avoid making these kinds of mistakes in designing your site, and again, as Ian Lurie warns, do not assume that the user will just 'figure it out.'

Taking these points in consideration will minimize potential errors and will almost certainly increase traffic to your site, consisting of both new and returning users. A better web experience equals a better brand experience, and that is ultimately the goal of any website. Don't let a weak defense make your website work against you.

As the saying goes, 'a good defense is the best offense.'

Written by: Savannah Harper, LB Wordsmith

Photo courtesy of Wild Women Entrepeneurs