by Kristen Abell
One of the things I do in my current role as a web coordinator at our university is information architecture. In layperson’s terms, this means I organize content for websites in a way that makes the website user-friendly. This also means I create site maps for the sites on which I’m working. Many of these sites have probably never had a site map created for them before. Others have had site maps at one time, but have stepped so far off the map, they don’t even look like the same site. It’s my job to whip them back into some semblance of an organized site before we go about designing them a new look and building the site out for them.
Why would you even want to create a site map in the first place? Well, what you may not realize as an administrator of a website (or even just a member of a department with a website) is that site content really fuels the user experience. Sure, look and branding is important, but even that is driven by the content. And if your content sucks or is poorly organized, no one is going to want to return to your site. Think about those sites you’ve visited that take forever for you to find the one thing for which you’re looking, or within which you get so lost you can’t find your way out. Those sites probably didn’t have good site maps.
The key to building a good site map is primarily being able to put your content into buckets. Try to organize your content into as few buckets as possible, while still making sure that the buckets make sense and aren’t too vague. Yes, there’s a bit of an art to it, but with practice it is one you can master. Think about how your navigation is going to look and feel – will a user have to scan through tons of navigation items to find the one thing they want? Or are the buckets so very broad that their particular topic could be in any one of several different navigation items? And remember, not every single thing about your department must be on your website – a website should work with the face-to-face and print aspects of your office to provide an overall message to your students or customers.
There are plenty of tools online that will help you create a visual site map, but one of the easiest tools I’ve found to use is actually Power Point (yes, there is actually a use for Power Point in today’s world!). Check out the “hierarchy” tab under “smart art,” and you can easily create a site map complete with pages and connections. In the site map above, there are actually two external pages/sites that will be linked to from the main page, and then there are seven main pages off the home page. Depending on how large your site is, you may be able to organize the site with just one site map, or you may need to use multiple maps to fully encompass the site.
Even if you are not currently undergoing a website revision, I can’t recommend creating a site map for your website enough – both for you and for colleagues in your department now or in the future. This can also help your site from growing into a monster site at some point (you know the ones – someone figured out how to add web pages, and they never looked back). By sticking to the core buckets, your department can continue to build onto your site in a way that is user-friendly and maintains the vision of your department.
Does your department currently have a site map? Do you have other tools you recommend for building a visual display?