These days I saw an article that talked about sitemaps and how effective (or not effective) they can be when showing the structure of a site during a meeting with the customer. The article caught my attention because I stopped to think that in the most recent projects I worked on the sitemap had not been very effective in communicating the structure of the site to those on the other side of the table or the line.
Some points I’ve noticed:
Depending on the type of project, showing the structure of the site is not important for the project and for what is being decided at the meeting. But this varies according to the type of navigation that is being designed In a Facebook application, for example, which has a more linear than hierarchical navigation, it makes much more sense to show a user flow than a sitemap. And what I realized is that this kind of project has been much more common than building websites with menus and submenus.
The sitemap is not a very interesting document to go through. It is clear the customer’s disinterest for the document, especially when the person to whom the sitemap is being presented does not have much experience in building sites. Put yourself in that person’s place: it’s all a big succession of rectangles and lines that can often scare you more than clarify.
Precisely because of this, in some cases, the client approves the sitemap without having understood very well what this approval means. It is important that, in the speech, the UX Designer makes very clear the purpose of the document, the implications of that structure that is being presented and even why you have not opted for a different structure. If you do not take these precautions during the presentation of the sitemap, the client ends up approving just by approving. Only in the stage of wireframes, the client will realize that a link he thought important ended up being too hidden within the structure of the site or the menu.
It is dangerous to show only the sitemap and cause the false sensation that the experience always starts from the homepage of the site – mainly because some of them happen in very different sites of the great worldwide network of computers. An experience can start on a user’s Facebook wall, proceed with an application, go through an SMS and end up inside the brand’s institutional website. In these cases, it makes more sense to show the way from the user’s point of view, and not from the point of view of the structure of the site – which usually starts on the homepage.
The article I mentioned tries to list some alternatives for the sitemap, some of them even interesting. What I’ve been trying to use is a hybrid between sitemap and user flow – and as far as possible from gray rectangles to avoid scaring the client too much.
But of course this deliverable decision should be thought of on a case-by-case basis and there is no “definitive formula” for that.
When in doubt, common sense and old common sense.