When it comes to website design, we tend to see endless debates about the aesthetics. What color? What style? What font?
But before you even begin to think about the way your site looks, you need to think about how it works. And the key to that lies in one of the most important and underappreciated elements of any quality website: the sitemap.
A sitemap is a simple and unassuming document that lists the individual pages and outlines the basic structure of your site. It might not seem like a big deal…but it is.
While XML sitemaps are used as search engine optimization tools, the importance of building a sitemap when creating a new website extends far beyond SEO. As a digital file or a printed document, the sitemap is an invaluable planning and design tool: a way to coordinate and communicate content and workflow, clarify goals, weed out redundant pages, streamline the design process and improve the user experience.
Think of a sitemap as a literal map. A guide. A table of contents. A checklist. A document that not only explains how to get from Point A to Point B (and Points C-Z, as well), but also specifies everything you are going to see along the way.
You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, or try to put a piece of IKEA furniture together without instructions. The same principle applies to designing a website. Like any big project, the more preparation and hard work you put in on the front end, the better the outcome will be. Constructing a sitemap is an ideal way to organize your thoughts, assemble your content in a logical and compelling way and ensure that nothing important is left out.
Make sure to include any special features for your site in the sitemap itself. This includes, among others, features like forms, sliders, news feeds, blog feeds, newsletter registration forms and online databases. Not only will this allow you to plan where the features live, but will make it easier to plan and integrate them into the finished site design.
To maximize the value of your sitemaps as a planning tool, they should be accessible to everyone who is working on site design or providing input. Your sitemap will almost certainly change throughout the design process, and it will keep all project stakeholders informed as the process unfolds. The more often you update your sitemap with information about how the website and the content it contains will be structured, the smoother things will go.
The sitemap is a great way to ensure your site design and flow are clear and coordinated. More than just a list, a sitemap serves as a conceptual model that helps you organize your website from an end-user’s perspective. Special thought should be placed on not only what to include, but where you want people to go and how you want them to get there—getting you closer to your ultimate goal of a concise, compelling and well-organized site.