When we begin working with a new client, one of the first deliverables we create for them is a sparkling clean new sitemap. A well-planned sitemap outlines how everything on a new site will relate to everything else. It is the heart of a sound information architecture that keeps a site easy to update, manage, and understand. But a sitemap can also be overwhelming to digest!

Early on in a redesign, it is natural to be eager to see visuals and start thinking about what a user is going to interact with, especially after you’ve done all the hard work of initial research and creating personas. Sitemaps for a large institution are dense, wordy, and can feel like a step backwards. As a client, what does working through this deliverable do for you?

A Sitemap Helps Cultivate Your Content

The first thing to understand about a sitemap is that it shows where the pages of your site actually “live.” Later, when you create the content that goes on those pages, you can decide to include links to pages that live in other sections. By mapping your pages this way, you can now see if you are duplicating or missing anything. Do you have something important to highlight about your organization, but don’t already have a logical place to put it? Now you can make sure to create one.

A sitemap makes it easier to plan how different sections might share content with one another, which makes updating your work easier because you will only have to go to one place to maintain your content in the future. If you are a school with several different programs that all have a similar application process, you can create one page about applications which each of these programs can link to, instead of creating duplicate content pages for each program, which might fall out of date or out of sync.

Want to know more about planning great content? My colleague Caroline Roberts can show you how the content sausage gets made.

Sitemaps Inform Your Navigation

Navigation should never be set up willy-nilly! A successful navigation scheme is always one based directly on your site’s structure, so that users never have any doubt about where they are. Think about the terminology you use in your sitemap—is it easy for any of your audiences to understand? Are you using clear vocabulary? Can you scan a section and know what it’s about immediately?

Use your sitemap to think about these questions early, and better understand how users will move through your site. Compare your sitemap to the key tasks in your user personas—where will they go as they look for the content they need?

A Sitemap Serves as Your Guidepost

Starting your redesign with a sitemap can help you put your content together that much sooner. If you have new content to produce, or old content to spruce up, you can use the sitemap as a to-do list. It is also a useful tool for developers and designers to begin their own planning, allowing them to decide what design elements and templates might be needed—will a given page in the sitemap be a simple text page? A splashy landing page? A listing or directory? Sitemaps are a way to keep everyone in sync, and help all of your team members speak the same language.

Fundamentally, a sitemap is a tool for thinking about how you want things arranged. If your new site is the beautiful new house you’re about to move into, what should you get rid of so you don’t have to pack it? What do you want to bring with you? What would you love to add so that it can look its very best? Think about how you want someone to feel when they step into your home for the first time, and you will be well on your way to planning your grand vision!