In Defense of Brochureware

All businesses need a Web site, just as all businesses need a phone line and business cards. These are normal pieces of doing business nowadays. The difference is that most people know how to use phone lines and business cards, and that’s not always so with Web sites. Too often, sites don’t provide the information that customers need.

Great has been the backlash against the “brochureware” site, a site that seems to simply present an HTML version of a company’s printed material. These sites have been criticized for rudimentary navigation, flat pages ill formatted for Web readability, and design filled with elements that work best on a printed page. In our collective haste to move beyond brochureware, we have embraced dynamic content, interactive features, souped-up design, and other betterments. What some of us may have forgotten, though, is that fancy site content doesn’t matter if you’re not helping your customers get what they want.

Brochureware, as long as it is modified to utilize the best features of the Internet in a manner that serves customers well, is not necessarily a bad thing. This idea, though, is most applicable for small companies. Small companies are still able to utilize the best available method of serving customers — personal contact — so their Web sites should be designed to augment and extend that service. In my opinion, it is often better for a small company to have a Web-optimized brochureware site than to have a fancy-schmancy site that doesn’t quite work. Below, I will list some changes that can help a small company develop a nice user-centric brochureware site that provides a lot with a little.

Information

One of the best uses for a brochureware site is providing the information that works best in brochure format: company background, instructions, price guides, and so on. When you’re visiting a brochureware site, it may not be exceptionally pretty, but there is one arena in which it can compete with the most expensive of sites: information. Even without dynamic content, a small company can provide a lot of information on static pages, whereas some snazzy sites run visitors through a 20-minute Flash presentation and impart no information at all.

For example, the Carpetguru site provides a helpful guide to carpet, but it would be even better if it were printable in a PDF version, so customers could take it into the home improvement store. The Farming Game Web site provides instructions to its board game, a nice feature for existing customers who have lost theirs. Again, a PDF would be an excellent choice here.

Small companies can also use their basic sites and intimate knowledge of their products to provide other information that is difficult to get from many bigger sites. For example, they can supply detailed product availability information, up-front pricing, retail locations, coupons, or free samples. Also, to really beat the big guys at their own game, they can provide a feedback form (which can be as simple as a mailto: link) and actually answer the emails personally.

Page Layouts

One common problem with brochureware sites is the misapplication of basic elements in the translation from paper to Web. When someone looks at a printed page, she holds the whole thing in her hands and can look at everything at once (she may have to turn the page over, but she still keeps the other side in her hands). Online, consumers must scroll, which means they lose everything above and below the screen. The Dreidel Design site, which generally has content well designed for the Web (compartmentalized text, contextual graphics, and links), scrolls over three pages on a normal-sized browser. Also, the navigational buttons are at the very bottom of the site. A quick layout change and moving the navigation to the upper left (which fits with most people’s idea of the Web standard) would enhance this site’s usability immensely.

Navigation

In this category, it doesn’t take much work to reap great rewards. One common problem in small-site design (as well as large-site design) is the misuse of navigational elements.

One confusing brochureware pet peeve of mine is the tendency to overuse image maps. These often take a long time to load and provide little to aid navigation, often because they offer redundant links or because they provide links that the main navigation should be handling. The Oxbow Pet Products has a nice site, with plenty of information about its products, retail locations, and customer testimonials. Unfortunately, there is a 534 x 235 image map in the middle of the home page that takes a while to load and offers redundant links that are on the general navigation, but with different names. The category names on the image map should also be used in the general navigation (the image map offers a link to “Veterinarian Listings,” while the general navigation shows “Retail Locations.” If these are the same, make the names the same).

Another common navigational problem on brochureware sites is the loss of constancy. Buttons move around, get different names, appear, and disappear. The List Organizer is an interesting site, but its large (and unorganized) navigation buttons change on almost every page, forcing visitors to rely on their “Back” buttons to get around.

In short, there is no shame in a brochureware site, as long as it utilizes the Web’s attributes rather than fights against them. Keep this in mind: With a little work, your brochureware site can serve your customers better than most sites that cost millions.

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