How Do the Big Guys Do It?
Let's take a look at four different major software companies and how different information architectural approaches were taken with each site:
In all of these examples, each site has similar offerings. How they have chosen to structure their content is what differs. You can see what a difference the structure makes by studying web sites that have a similar purpose (these are all software sites) but different approaches. As you are developing your own content, try to find at least four other sites that are similar to yours and compare what works and what doesn't.
Corel attracts the most attention to its tag line and mission statement (see figure 6). This assumes that the visitor coming to this site doesn't know what Corel offers and needs to be sold on them as a company. If you were looking for product support or to upgrade, you would have to search a bit harder for that information within this architectural shell. The categories Products and Support exist, but they're pretty low in the visual hierarchy.
The next read is on the potential user categories: Small Business, Enterprise, or Creative Pro. The assumption is that either you are new to Corel altogether or that you want to identify what kind of software suits your business or creative needs. Again, it's an approach that assumes a novice visitor and offers less support for the existing customer. Notice that there isn't a search box! If you were coming to Corel to find a specific item, you would have to click through a lot of links and not feel very secure that you might find what you were looking for quickly enough.
Microsoft site's main categories are easy to find, and the search box is prominent (see figure 7). If you wanted to meander around and look through different sections, you'd have lots of options from the front page. There is a lot of visual attention given to a series of images on the top that contains the tag line MSN: Put your PC to bed at night. This is a link to an article on MSN, but that's not clear from the graphic at all. Still, this doesn't comprise the ability of new or frequent Microsoft visitors to find what they're searching for. There's no attempt to identify the potential user as a business or creative, enterprise, or anything else.
Adobe places a lot of attention on the main navigation categories, even offering sub-categories on the front page (see figure 8). Search isn't at the top level, since it requires that you click on a link to reach it. There is no attempt to identify what type of user is interested in what type of product, such as whether you're a creative, business, or enterprise user. Product announcements and advertisements are given great prominence, which makes sense since this is a software company. Still, the lack of an easy to-find search box on the top level is a frustrating choice to those visitors who want to use the search feature.
Macromedia has clear main and persistent navigation (see figure 9). Search is easy to find and is usable right from the front page. They choose to prominently promote a different single product on the upper right. Below that, they have lots of other links and categories for people who want to browse around. They have one main navigation link that allows visitors to identify themselves as designers or developers.