Organizations can’t resist broadcasting when customers just want to get something done. 

This was a website that was “blowing the doors off” web design, I was told. Oh yeah? I bet you it’s also innovative and cutting-edge with awesome branding. I have learned over the years that whenever I hear these sort of fantastic phrases, it can only mean one thing.

It will be a huge beautiful image that dominates the entire page. There will be some vague meaningless words and phrases. And there will be nothing much to do (or whatever there is to do will be very hard to find and do). Rather, you will be expected to just sit there and experience the branding.

Bob Johnson, my colleague, had sent me the link to Bucknell University whose website was blowing off doors from an innovative design point of view, or so some were saying. The first time I visited it had a forgettable phrase that I’ve since forgotten and a picture of beautiful flowers. (Students choose universities based on the beauty of their flowers.)

The last time I visited it all I saw on the page was this phrase “We don’t mean to bug you.” Some seconds later a huge picture of a beautiful bug appeared. It’s clever and that’s its problem. There are other clever links on the page, such as “Now” and the “Everything Directory” and “What do you want to see?” There was also a command: “Scroll Down.” There was also a link inviting us to “Customize this Homepage.” However, there was no obvious link that would let you actually customize it.

This is classic brochureware, billboard-on-the-highway design. It’s the weed that won’t go away. Logic and customer data stamps it out for a while, but then it pops up again. Why? Because traditional marketers and communicators love it. It massages the organizational ego, makes you feel special, makes you feel beautiful, but most importantly, it makes you feel you are in control of the message and the customer.

In this sense, it is the opposite of web and social culture. The educated, cynical, skeptical task-focused customer wants to know what they can do on your website, not what they can view. Billboard brochureware is for the passive customer, the customer ready to consume whatever the organization presents as new and important.

Billboard brochureware is the opposite of fast and usable. It is the opposite of mobile. Huge pictures are so print, so broadcast. They represent the quintessence of the organization telling you what it wants you to hear. It’s the organization whining: “Pay attention to what I’m saying to you!”

There doesn’t have to be a conflict between the organization and the customer. But unfortunately there often is because many organizations can’t get away from that precious feeling that they are the center of the universe.

It’s not, of course, that big pictures are always wrong on the web. Rather, it is the old-school marketing and communication org-think that they so often represent. It is possible to have the best of both worlds.

For example, the University of Ottawa website (which was developed by our partners Neo Insight) does use big pictures on its homepage, but in the center of the pictures are clear tasks: Find a Program, Estimate Costs, Calendar & Deadlines, Search the iLibrary. Things that actually matter to people. Useful things.