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If you followed Step 1, you’ve talked yourself hoarse and everyone’s got a good sense of where to take your business on the web. So, what’s next? Isn’t it time to build? No way!
You’re still four steps away from finishing the planning part of the project and if you skip this one, you’ll regret it the minute your designer hands you a great concept… that doesn’t quite accommodate the number of navigation links you need. How do you know what navigation links you need? Good question. That’s where this step comes in…
Step 2: Sitemap
Building a sitemap is a good old fashioned paper-and-pencil exercise. Ok, maybe a good old-fashioned keyboard-and-mouse exercise. Whatever your tools, it is a drawing phase. You will need to sit down with your developer and decide exactly what your site structure is from a high-level perspective so that you can visualize the navigational flow.
This sounds easy, and in reality it may or may not be. It all depends on how clear a vision you already have for your website and how much content needs to be organized.
Sitemap The Navigation
Sure, you’ll have a home page, and more likely than not an “About Us” page, but there are endless possibilities when it comes to the rest, depending on your business and the purpose of your site.
It’s never a good idea to start designing a site without a clear understanding of all the pages that must be represented. For starters, you may simply find that your site’s design doesn’t accommodate for the space requirements of your navigation.
I’ve been in this situation with clients before, where they had a site designed and now they want to add an extra “button” onto the navigation but there is absolutely no space to do it without breaking the page. It could be a poor design – after all, a design should be at least somewhat flexible – but it’s more likely the result of poor planning.
Secondly, you may not adequately organize content unless you can visualize how it will be structured. A sitemap is like an architect’s drawing for a house. It shows how one room flows into the next, makes allowances for doorways and leaves room for adding on that den when the family grows.
A sitemap accomplishes a similar goal for your web plan by showing how pages are interlinked and how content is presented. As you plan the structure of the site, you should be designating primary navigation, secondary navigation and sub-navigation. If you can’t create a clear path through your web site for visitors to follow, they may never take the action you hope for.
So go ahead and start your sitemap. Draw a box and call it your “Home Page”. Then draw another box and call it your “About Us” page, and draw a line connecting them so you know that they will be directly interlinked. Keep drawing boxes and lines until you’ve got all those pages in a hierarchical tree. Set priorities now so you can design around them later.
Sitemap The Page Types
Now that you know what pages will be included on your site, it’s time to ask what kind of pages? Some pages will be static content; some may be dynamic and generated by a content management system. Some pages may be third-party resources; some may be form-based (like your contact form).
Each type of page has its own structural, content and technology requirements, details that will become important as you move into the next few steps of planning. So be sure to lay a good foundation now. In visual format, this can be as simple as color coding each page by type. Blue pages are static while red are dynamic and green means you’re linking outside of your site.
The goal here is to take the abstract and intangible (“we want a few pages of information and we want to manage some of that”) and make it visually concrete (“These are your four informational pages, and this is the one you will manage”).
Sitemap The Data Flow
This can be as simple as deciding what happens when a customer submits your Contact form, or as complex as detailing interactions with databases and third party software.
Let’s start with the Contact form, probably the simplest data flow to map. What happens when a customer hits that “Submit” button? Two fundamental things should occur if you’ve got any remote plans for success with your site: the customer should get confirmation that the message was sent, usually through a “thank you” page, and the form should be delivered somewhere.
If you sitemap properly, you will not only map the flow from form to thank you, but also from form to wherever it’s going. Is it delivered to someone’s inbox via HTML email or stored in a database? Does it trigger a copy or a follow up email to the sender or not? If you show how this works up front, you won’t have to wonder, fret and patch later – or worse yet, risk missing a detail as simple as where your form is delivered and losing that customer contact.
If your site will be running off a database, as an ecommerce or content managed site will, you’ve got a lot more sitemapping to do. Every last interaction with the database, every checkpoint, every validation method must be outlined to show how data will flow from database to site and site to database.
By the time you’re done, you should know exactly what data transactions will take place, how they’ll work and what will happen when they fail.
If your brain is hemorrhaging right now, take a deep breath and relax. Hire a good developer and let someone who knows the ins and outs of diagrams, data flow and navigational structure do the work. As long as you participate in the first planning step and talk your way to a coherent web plan, a developer will get it on paper so it makes sense.
Once you have a sitemap, you can comfortably move on to the next step and add a little more detail to your plan. And remember that while a sitemap should be a fairly accurate representation of your site, it is not etched in stone.
Certainly as you move deeper into the planning and development process it gets harder to rewind and recreate the foundation without causing an increasingly greater impact on time and budget, but the process has to be fluid because sometimes you simply learn new information that requires a change in thinking.
Just remember that the more thorough you can be about each step – especially the early ones – the better off you’ll be in terms of schedule, budget and a great web site at the end.
Can you think of any good reason to skip the sitemap phase?