Thursday, July 28, 2011

Site maps

Kathy's note: This is the seventh installment in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey that discusses the intersection of content strategy and user-centred design. Read all posts by Theresa.

Site maps are something I’ve been struggling with lately. With content dynamically generated, what’s the best way to do a site map? Perhaps it’s best to back up for a minute, explain what site maps are, and then explain my quandary.

What are site maps?
Site maps show the structure of a website. While wireframes are called the “blueprint” of the UX world, I’d say that a site map is more like the electrical wiring diagram or plumbing diagram. These diagrams show you the path that the wiring or plumbing takes through the house. They make sure there’s no wasted materials, no pipes leading to dead ends, no electrical wires not contained in junction boxes.

The site map is used for structuring the pages on the site: it groups the pages into some logical order (based on the user needs or personas for the website). To create a site map, you’ll need to do a content audit or content inventory, deciding on what you want to keep and what needs to be removed. Site map creation can be driven by card sorting and you can test your site map through task testing.

Site maps can be done by either information architects or content strategists. As I see the division:
  • For an IA, the site map is more important for structuring the site properly and creating a representative number of wireframes so the content on the site can be accommodated.
  • For the content strategist, the site map is more important for creating and editing content.
For examples of site maps, do a search for site map images. You’ll find a number of examples.

What are they good for?
Site maps shows you links between pages. The highest level is normally used for the global navigation while the secondary level and tertiary level can be used as sub-navigation items and page links, respectively.

By using a site map, you agree to the site structure before you build it. You know what pages you have and the stakeholders, project team and developers know what should go where. Based on the site map, during the development phase, the content strategist can start creating or editing content to fit onto the pages and continue to revise the site map should it need further modification.

Some issues I’ve experienced in the past include sites that are dynamically created. For example, a page can be created based on a taxonomy. If you take, they have an infinite number of pages driven from their faceted classification. In this case, a site map cannot express the structure of the site. The wireframes must hold all the information necessary to display information and they must be standardized enough to accommodate the faceted classification. Explaining and agreeing to this structure and functionality with a team that doesn’t understand how faceted classification and the technology works can be quite difficult. I frequently encounter clients who don’t understand the technology driving the websites. While I do explain it to them, there’s always someone else who comes along in the project who does not understand the technology. It’s constant give-and-take between education and progress. You can’t progress and make decisions if clients don’t know how something will work. It’s a constant source of vexation for me because I always have to judge how much someone knows, sometimes I get it wrong. I’m always thinking about how to improve my communication skills so the customer gets what he/she needs out of my work.

Another issue I’ve encountered is what I would call “a site in transition.” For example, some companies need to move their intranet to a new platform, but intranets sites fall into the decentralized control area. Sometimes there are too many sites to move them all at the same time. The site map for the first version of the new intranet might be very small (showing the pages that belong in the first version of the new intranet). But the navigation may still need to lead to these decentralized sites. Not all the sites are carried to the new platform, are on the old platform, look different than the new site. It’s best practice to link navigation to pages within a site and the idea of having landing pages with links has been thrown out. Sometimes the navigation must link to sites that look different. This will cause the user to feel disoriented. It’s also quite difficult to denote these different links within a site map. What pages are on the site? What pages are only in the navigation but not on the site? To solve this problem, I created a site map and a “navigation map,” if you will. 


About the Author

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.

Read all posts by Theresa.