Following a habit crafted over many years, many websites of large corporations still use the trusted formula of rock logic borrowed from the GUI navigation philosophy invented by IBM for the PC platform many years ago. There you have a top down approach aimed at the rational user who will identify areas of interest by stepping through levels of tree-like menus. The help system mirrors that organisation structure and so do the training manuals.
The tree-like structures have either a technical or an organisational orientation, but some use a mixed formula. For instance if you have a web site about cement, you could use a product structure (using categories and sub-categories) based on the types of cement and its uses or you could have a formal corporate structure (we are best partners, we have superior products, we have the best support, etc.).
The assumption here is that the visitor knows what to look for and have a precise goal in mind. Their experience is perfectly individual, (they don’t know what the other visitors think or do), and it is linear: navigate through menu levels until they get to the section they wanted. For large organisations with more sophisticated products and services, most of the time the expectation is that an enquiry will follow after the visitor “liked” the corporate glossy self-praising statements and visual gadgetry. And then the classic tango will ensue taking the visitor through wondrous departmental dance.
The problem is visitors get bored, have no patience to “navigate”, or simply don’t have enough knowledge to decide what to do. Nowadays the idea of using the phone to make enquiries looks more and more daunting and so inadequate. This is not because the old fashion phone call is not useful. It is, in certain circumstances. But the fact is a rich online experience in which the user decides on the spot how to interact with the system, how much time to spend on reading, playing and learning, etc., is essential to keep the visitors coming back and get to understand your offerings. An attractive online experience is a great way of marketing your brand.
But this is much more than a branding exercise. In an ever-changing world, you need to have your visitors discover by themselves what you are about. Because the products and services keep changing all the time, in the context of changing industries, the associated ontologies cannot be assumed to be implicitly understood by your average visitor. You have to allow the visitors to discover your world of products and services through exploration, through social structures in which visitors help other visitors to figure out answers to their questions by themselves. A great online presence is an interactive information kiosk, a learning place and a comfort zone.