This article gives an introductory look at 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, no junction boxes hidden in walls.

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 information architect, 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.

Issues

I’ve found that site maps tell only part of the story. They show how a site is structured, but they don’t show how a pages or objects on a site are linked together. This can be a major obstacle to site map adoption. I found that content models and content maps are much better at showing how things are linked.

Another issue 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 Epicurious.com, 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. I’m always improving 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. The site map shows the pages that are centrally controlled while the navigation map shows what will appear in the global or local navigation in the browser. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s part of the transition and the situation can’t be helped!

Summary

This article gives a brief definition of a site map and their purpose. It talks about challenges with site maps. What challenges do you have? How have you resolved them?