UIEtips: The Site Map – An Information Architecture Cop-Out

Jared Spool

August 12th, 2008

The design process is filled with tradeoffs. We have to decide what functions are in and what functions are left on the cutting room floor. We have to decide how we’re going to present the functions to the user and what we’re going to hide from them. And we have to decide what problems we’re going to fix and what we’re going to simply patch up.

The problem comes when the patches become, in our minds, mainstream functionality. We call these design cop-outs — when designers patch the symptoms instead of addressing the core problems.

Design cop-outs come in many different flavors. For example, you might let users choose options instead of designing it for them. Sure, some personalization is probably OK, but why should the user decide between a “minimized database” or “maximized for search”? How would the user know any better than the design team what is appropriate?

This is the cop-out: instead of doing the research to determine what will best serve the users, the team opted to leave the finishing touches to the user. In turn, the user is wholly unequipped to make the right decision and becomes frustrated because they are being asked.

In this issue of UIEtips, we explore another common cop-out: the site map. Sure, site maps seem like a useful tool. (After all, the site map is an invaluable developer tool for tracking the entirety of the site.) But, for users, it can become a catch-all for content the team doesn’t know how to organize.

Read the article: Site Maps: An Information Architecture Cop-Out

Thinking about organizing your site’s content is the domain of information architecture. At this October’s User Interface 13 Conference, we’ve invited Donna (Maurer) Spencer — world renowned expert in information architecture — to give a full-day, in-depth seminar to get you started on this all important topic.

What has your team done about your site map? Have you discovered it’s an essential part of your site? Or are you trying to reduce it? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

9 Responses to “UIEtips: The Site Map – An Information Architecture Cop-Out”

  1. Tom Philo Says:

    I use my site map in ways that it is impossible to use within my menu system – as a full featured sentence describing what the page is about which cannot be done on the menu due to size constraints. I organize the site map in the same way as the menus, but without having just a single word to describe the link it gives a more exact scent for people who may not know in detail what it means.
    The menu system would have Pictures > Airplanes > Bf 109 as the menu cascades down to the link – and thus you have to know was Bf 109 means when you click on the menu and hope it is what you want.
    On the site map I can put down Bf 109 World War II Luftwaffe German Messerschmit Photos and History as the link text thus giving them a full description of what the page is about. This helps the SE know what the page is about (asides from its indexing the words and the title meta data) but for a person who is looking for info and has no knowledge of airplane jargon already (manufacturer model number, slang names, code names)- it gives them enough context to determine it.
    My site is complex since I do photography as a side job AND I use the site for sharing my other interests – it is not a single function site.
    I have always arranged by function and common people’s way of thinking and using words and information – not marketingese organization ideas.
    It also makes it easier for ME to maintain by matching both in menu and physical file structure.

  2. Nathan Swift Says:

    Our team is wrestling with the fact that we don’t currently have a site map! At this stage we will not put too much effort into it, given that we are hoping to conduct a thorough IA review towards the end of the year.

    I agree that focusing too much on the site map can be a cop out, but also agree with Pete and Lou (in the polar bear book) when they say:

    Supplemental navigation systems [like site maps] can be critical factors for ensuring usability and findability within large web sites. However, they’re often not given the care and feeding they deserve. Many site owners still labor under the misconception that if they could only get the texonomy right, all users and all user needs would be addressed.

    I guess, like many things, we need to strive for that Utopian balance!

  3. Meghan Says:

    I don’t like them. If a user needs the sitemap to find what they are looking for, something is wrong with the IA. Simplistic, I know, and particularly true for more simple sites. I do think there are probably sites where they are warranted. Personally, I reference them only when I’m ridiculously frustrated with not finding the info I want.

  4. Christian Watson Says:

    Based on this article, I’m not sure why you still wouldn’t include a sitemap anyway. They’re not hard to create or maintain, so what’s the downside?

    As well as providing a safety net for people who can’t find what they want, as you mentioned, they can act as a tool to help you fix problems with the IA/usability of your site.

    Plus, they help search engines index your site, which is never a bad thing.

  5. Michael Gonsalves Says:

    I’ve got to agree with Christian – how is it a “cop out” to provide a site map as a safety net? Sure, if that is all you are doing when you notice scent problems your aren’t really fixing anything, but shouldn’t every site still have one? By this same logic wouldn’t site search also be a cop out?

  6. Maggie Wolfe Riley Says:

    @Christian and @Michael, here’s a paragraph from the article you must have missed:

    “Site maps have their place and we’re not suggesting that you dump them entirely. Search engine spiders crawl through the site map to find the pages that are hard to find otherwise on your site, so you wouldn’t want to eliminate them unless those pages are now accessible some other way. (Of course, if the spiders can only find them thru the site map, that probably goes for the users too, and therefore may be indicative of a bigger problem.) We’re only suggesting you work hard to make them redundant.”

    I found this article interesting, and as soon as I read the intro paragraph, obvious (as in smack your forehead and say “doh!” obvious). The real problem is with so many people getting to the site map instead of finding what they want some other way. Using analytics on your site map is a great idea for finding deeper issues in your UI and navigation, just like seeing what people search for. If a significant percentage of users find your site map, that’s probably bad news.

  7. Andy Hoppe Says:

    I agree: The site map doesn’t help users. However, I don’t believe that it can be made redundant altogether in the near future. Search engines not only need it for simple access to lower-level pages, but they actually punish web sites with a good hierarchical structure. Some major search engines simply assume the home page to have the highest overall value (e.g. because it is the target of relatively more incoming links than any other individual page within the site). Pages further down in the hierarchy are assumed to be of decreasing value, although the relevance of the content for specific queries increases. So the only solution is to use a site map to “flatten” the hierarchy: With a sitemap (reachable through a subdued link from the home page), all pages are only two clicks away from the home page. This reduces the bias toward higher-level pages and opens the way to the indexing of pages based only on their content. (In theory – I am aware of the numerous caveats and exceptions.)

  8. Garry Scoville Says:

    I applaud your premise that sitemaps can be a cop-out. The goal of a development team should be that a sitemap page gets very little to no traffic, because other forms of navigation are so effective. However, I think you’ve missed an important point. Sitemaps are a critical tool for SEO. If a site owner wants the site to be found on search engines, the sitemap should be clearly available in the site and aggressively kept current. In addition, a sitemap.xml file should be created to aid the search engines to index the site. A web search for “seo sitemap” will produce many results that emphasize the sitemap. Google analytics also talks about this. Therefore, a sitemap should be available on a site, but not intended as a secondary or even a last resort navigational method.

  9. Rocco Robotini Says:

    As a usability specialist you’re often not able to implement the best-working IA for your website. Decisions about navigation are more often influenced by the poor souls of unbelivers in the business, especially in large scale companies. To prevent your users from getting harmed by their mistakes, a sitemap often is the only chance of catching lost visitors on your website.

    Or, as good old Jakob recently wrote about sitemaps:(http://www.useit.com/alertbox/sitemaps.html)

    1. They don’t hurt people who don’t use them.
    2. They do help a few people.
    3. They incur very little cost.

    Yes, I think he’s right!

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