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"hierarchy is good"

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What is it?

A sitemap is a tree-structure graphical representation of the hierarchical organisation of an interactive site or service.


Visually, a sitemap is based upon network formalisms, i.e. it's constructed from nodes and links. Typically, each node in a sitemap is a web page. Typically, each node will have a numeric identifier (e.g. 1.2) that reflects its position in the hierarchy.

It may - depending upon the site and the project - be of a particular template type, e.g. GC3 for General Content Type 3 (these template types would be created during a wireframing exercise).

The majority of sitemaps have a "taxonomic depth" of anywhere between three (3) and five (5). Below this level, structure is usually (but not always) linear rather than hierarchical.

What's it for?

A sitemap is a visual representation of a taxonomy, which in turn is nothing more complex than an ordered division of things into related groups or categories.

For online and interactive offerings like websites, taxonomy is used to create divisions in a body of content so that the customer is presented with meaningful and tractable groupings of information rather than one single, undifferentiated mass. Taxonomy lies behind - the diagramming creation of - the visual structure of a site as represented in a sitemap.

How to create a sitemap
The way that the structure of a site is derived is not an exact science. Sometimes it suggests itself very naturally and, from what is known of the customer, it just seems obvious. The outputs from card sorting or affinity diagramming can obviously feed in to sitemap construction, as can knowledge of user behaviour gleaned from research or contextual inquiry.

There are also heuristics to help you: the magical number seven, being the comfortable limit of short-term memory storage, is a good one for example (and never trust an information architect who proposes significantly more than seven primary navigation items). A few other pointers:

  • Iterate - like wireframes, don't be afraid to iterate on taxonomy representations. Create, test, revise, test, revise... and so on
  • Symmetry is good - if you have widely different amounts of information under one or more categories in comparison with others, tha's a pretty sure sign the taxonomy needs some work

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