Contingency Design: Learning to Say You're Sorry

Ian Lurie

3D Error 404 Sorry Crossword on white background

Ever had a miserable customer experience, but walked away smiling? The lousy dinner that was followed up with free dessert? The terrible phone service compensated by two months free? How about a free First Class upgrade after your flight was delayed?

Why did you walk away happy? The meal sucked. The phone company drove you nuts. And you got to your destination 9 hours late, after eating lousy terminal food. You walked away happy because someone said, “We’re very sorry, and here’s how we’re going to make up for it.” They showed a little respect, and yah, they bribed you.

You can do the same thing on your web site, through a technique called Contingency Design – the Zen art of admitting things will go wrong, and figuring out how to apologize, in advance. Contingency design is essential to good Conversation Marketing. Because no web interaction can be perfect, and it’s up to you to help your audience past conversation stoppers.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Someone clicks a link on another web site. That link used to point to a page on your site, but you’ve rebuilt your site since then. What do they see? Well, if you failed to practice good contingency design, they see an ugly, generic 404 Page Not Found message, and then they bail out. That conversation didn’t even get started. If you did engage in a little contingency design, though, they might see a nicely designed page that says something like this. That error page provides navigation, clear indication that you’re in the right place, and instructions on what to do next. The conversation continues.
  • A visitor to your site uses your onsite search tool to find ‘widgets’. But they type in ‘wigets’. Bad contingency design yields a “sorry, no results found”, and relies on the visitor to figure out what happened. Good contingency design shows a page that says something like “We didn’t find anything for ‘wigets’, but we did find results for related terms. Here are the top 10 results.” All fixed.

In both cases, a little forethought helps the visitor find their way past those inevitable little mishaps, and respects their interest in your message.

Good contingency design means always having to say your sorry, but never having to say ‘see you later’. If you want to learn more about contingency design, check out Defensive Design for the Web. It’s a definitive work on the subject.


Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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