Improving Your Process: Sitemaps and Design Preparation

Sitemaps aren’t exactly a popular topic for conversation as of late. Given the improvements both in site architecture as well as search engine intelligence, it seems as though sitemaps have taken a backseat as far as priority is concerned. I’ve written specifically about sitemaps and whether or not they’re applicable today. With client work, I’m constantly asked for a sitemap to be implemented before the launch of the site. More often than not, the site navigation itself is as detailed as any sitemap can get, but there are still many people expecting to see a page dedicated to outlining which documents are available on a website.

The benefits of sitemaps

Sitemaps, at their most basic level, are only partially helpful when you think about how they can be improved. In a very basic state, a sitemap can be something as simple as a list of links pointing to each page available throughout the website. Taking a sitemap to the next level could result in a set of lists organized by section to help visitors find what they’re looking for a bit quicker. On top of that, short descriptions can be added to help readers to be sure that they’re going to find the information they’re looking for. Many times, a sitemap can really help to visualize the overall structure of the website, and often can help you to see any faults.

How can a sitemap help with design?

Recently we’ve been requiring that a sitemap is part of our design process. It sounded a bit strange to us at first, but after taking a step back and looking at things, we thought that having a client sign off on a sitemap before we began comps would be a good idea for a number of reasons.

Primarily, starting work on a sitemap gets us thinking about the site content as a whole. It helps us to see how the information should be organized and shows the size of the site itself. At this stage, we’ll put together some ideas and suggestions as far as how the site should be organized.

More often than not, a client won’t think much about the organization of their website; that’s our job. The whole reason we’re asked to make websites is because it’s our profession. We’re able to suggest things such as information organization which will help deliver a better end product. As professionals at the top of our game, we should be focusing not on a redesign, we should provide a realign.

Realignment is a topic in and of itself, and deserves much attention. The piece written by Cameron Moll for A List Apart really got many people thinking in a new way, and that has really stuck with me since reading it over two years ago.

Other benefits of a sitemap in your design process

Having a client sign off on a sitemap before you sit down to work on a comp can also help in other ways. First and foremost, having a sitemap will help you to structure the most important feature of any website; the navigation. Working from the sitemap, you’re able to better see how the site navigation should be put together. In my personal experience, many websites I’ve worked on were greatly improved as far as site navigation is concerned. Many websites will simple spiral out of control with patches and quick fixes resulting in a confusing pile of documents. Establishing a new sitemap helps to resolve any issues with disorganization.

Including this step also gives you as the designer another document to reference when drastic change is requested. A request for change is (usually) inevitable, but having a sitemap to refer to helps keep the project on track and moving in the right direction. It’s also one more document that can be passed around to ensure other people involved in the project know where things stand. Communication is usually an issue if not on your end, but on the part of your client. I’ve found that having more material to reference can really help with any discrepancies that come up throughout the process.

All in all, I’ve found a new use for sitemaps. Even though they’re not sitemaps which are classic in the sense of the word, they have really helped our process on a number of projects, and the end product is better because of incorporation in the design phase.