Demystifying Sitemaps: A Beginner's Comprehensive Guide



Welcome to our Beginner’s Guide series, tailored for those embarking on the journey of discovering user experience (UX) or those seeking a refresher on fundamental concepts. In this installment, we delve into the world of sitemaps.

What is a Sitemap?

A sitemap is a hierarchical diagram that visually represents the structure of a website or application. User Experience Designers and Information Architects utilize sitemaps to define the taxonomy, grouping related content logically. Sitemaps play a crucial role in the user-centered design process as they ensure that content is intuitively organized, mirroring users’ expectations. Furthermore, they serve as reference points for creating wireframes, functional specifications, and content maps.

Why Should I Use a Sitemap?

Sitemaps offer several advantages:

1. Structural Clarity: They illustrate how the site’s navigation should be organized, enhancing user-friendliness.

2. Content Planning: Sitemaps help identify where content will reside and what needs to be created.

3. Page Relationships: They reveal the relationships between different pages, aiding in content flow.

4. Development Blueprint: Sitemaps provide a foundational structure for estimating development efforts.

5. Tangible Deliverable: They serve as the first tangible representation of what you’ll be creating.

When Do I Create a Sitemap?

Sitemaps are typically developed after completing persona and user journey assessments and wrapping up the initial discovery phase. They visualize insights gained about how users will navigate the site, their content needs, and preferred language. Additionally, sitemaps consider business objectives and the content required to fulfill the overall strategy.

How Do I Create a Sitemap?

There are two primary workshop methods for creating sitemaps efficiently. For this article, we’ll focus on card sorting, assuming you already have an idea of the content needed for the site or application.

Card Sort Workshop:

In a card sort, participants are provided with cards or post-its, each featuring a single piece of content or functionality identified during the discovery phase. These cards are labeled with reference numbers for future ease. Participants are then tasked with organizing the content into groups and assigning names to these groups. This technique is valuable for generating ideas for taxonomies.

Open Card Sort:

Participants are given cards with content written on them, similar to the open card sort. However, they are asked to sort these cards into pre-defined categories that you provide. If participants place cards in unexpected categories, it suggests the need to revisit your site structure. The closed card sort is used to evaluate an already-established taxonomy.

Use the Output

After the card sort session, you can organize the results into a mind map or spreadsheet, aligning categories and content references. Examine how participants have named items and, in the case of a closed card sort, review any unexpected placements. Remember to refer to your personas and user journeys at this stage.

Ask yourself:

- Does the proposed taxonomy support user journeys?
- Would different personas understand the labeling?
- Are there categories with only one piece of content? (Single-item categories are generally discouraged)
- Does the sitemap have more than seven categories? If so, can any be consolidated? (Over seven categories often indicates poor taxonomy grouping)

What Should a Sitemap Contain?

A sitemap should include:

- A homepage or home screen item at the top.
- Reference numbers for each item.
- Labels for each item.

What Should a Sitemap Look Like?

A basic sitemap is typically straightforward. For websites with extensive content, you may consider dividing the sitemap into multiple pages, each showcasing one category with a top-level overview. The hierarchy should follow a numerical pattern, with the homepage as 1.0 and categories incrementing numerically (e.g., the first category as 2.0, the second as 3.0, and so forth).

What’s Next?

Your sitemap serves as the foundation for what you’ll be delivering and the initial blueprint for defining the interface, particularly the navigation. It’s a valuable reference point for sitemaps, content strategies, and functional specifications. Plus, it provides an excellent way to communicate your plans to clients.

In our upcoming beginner’s guide, we will explore wireframes and how they define interfaces. Stay tuned for more UX insights and practical knowledge.