“To successfully communicate the characteristics of an information space, I needed an approach for creating easily understood diagrams. To be useful to my audience, the diagrams must communicate the “big picture” of the website to stakeholders, while providing enough detail to be useful for the development team.”
Information spaces surround us. When we retrieve a file from our computer, we are browsing through an information space; when we use a search engine we are sifting through an information space; and when we visit a website we are moving through yet another information space. As user experience professionals, it is our job not only to understand how this space works (and how people work within the space), but also how to best access and communicate the information contained therein. Understanding the structure of an information space for a website boils down to the following questions:
- What is the information structure?
- How do I visually represent that structure?
- What relationships exist among the web pages?
- How are those page relationships represented?
I suspected that site diagrams would be quite helpful in answering these questions. How to create the right diagram became a personal challenge.
The evolution of a diagramming approach
My earliest inspiration came in a graduate class on Information Architecture at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. Our textbook was Rosenfeld & Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, which provided me with my first examples of site diagrams. Based on the book’s diagrams, I had an idea of how I could visually convey structural and functional information about a website.
Because the text did not provide specific diagramming guidelines, I found myself iterating from the few images it contained. Every project I worked on served as a further iteration as I adopted practices that worked well and discarded those that did not. During this iterative process, Jesse James Garrett released his excellent Visual Vocabulary, which had a decidedly different focus in its diagramming. Whereas my evolving approach focused primarily on mapping out structure and page relationships, with secondary consideration given to functionality and interactivity, I found that the Visual Vocabulary was ideal for displaying detailed functionality and interactivity and was not the right approach for conveying my structural considerations
To successfully communicate the characteristics of an information space I needed an approach for creating easily understood diagrams. To be useful to my audience, the diagrams must communicate the “big picture” of the website to stakeholders, while providing enough detail to be useful for the development team. A final goal was to avoid unnecessary abstraction in the diagrams; the diagram content should map closely to what will later be observed on the website (or what is currently on the website, if the diagram is part of a redesign). In fact, my desire to understand websites led me to develop a diagramming approach called “structural/functional site diagramming.”
Starting with a site outline
A site diagram might initially sound like a site outline. And while not technically a part of the site diagram, a site outline complements the diagram quite well. The site outline presents the website structure in a typical outline format, perfectly mirroring the numbering, levels, and labels in the site diagram. The advantages of site outlines is that they are faster to create and maintain than site diagrams, but their drawbacks include difficulties showing linear page sequences and limits in their ability to mention functionality and other content types, mainly due to the visual clutter the extra text creates. (If that information is provided it is typically in parentheses following the page name.) Site outlines also do not reveal the “big picture” of the website (such as its breadth and depth) as readily as site diagrams.
After creating the initial site outline, the next step is to represent the information in diagram format, which allows us to more easily show complex page relationships as well as functionality. Since we are moving into the diagramming process, the logical starting place is the structural units that serve as the building blocks of the diagram.
Structural units in the diagram
The basic structural unit of the diagram is the web page, represented by a rectangle. If a web page is dynamically generated then the rectangle’s edges are rounded (static pages do not receive rounded edges). Web pages to be developed at a future date are represented by a dotted rectangle; a footnote can indicate the target date for the page to be available or reference a content inventory for those details. By mapping this future development a site diagram can help predict long-term user interface needs and serves to guide interface design towards a more scalable layout (e.g., a layout that will easily accommodate the four new global navigation buttons that will be added over the span of six months).
Multiple pages at the same level of the website can be clustered, providing a useful level of abstraction in situations where displaying each separate page would prove difficult (usually due to the space limitations of the printed page holding the diagram). When deciding to cluster pages some basic criteria are followed:
- The pages being clustered are located no higher than Level 3 of the website; preferably they are at lower levels.
Clustering at too high a level (e.g., from the home page) will often hide pertinent information and page relationships further down in the website structure. More on this later.
- There are no sub-pages under the clustered items.
Clustering prevents individual paths through the website from being seen, so any value gained from knowing those paths to lower-level pages is lost.
- The pages have similar content.
Executive biographies, press releases, job postings, and discussion board entries all work well for clustering because these are multiple pages with similar content. Given their inherent similarities, showing them separately does not offer enough value to offset the visual clutter they introduce into the diagram.
- The quantity of pages is likely to change frequently.
Rather than change the diagram on a daily basis, it is best to show a cluster.
Figure 1: Structural site diagramming units
Specifying levels and numbering pages
Most websites possess a structure that is at least partially hierarchical. In that hierarchical structure, each page is at a certain level, based on parent and child relationships to other pages within the information space. The home page is Level 1, global navigation and other non-global pages off the home page are Level 2, local navigation is Level 3, and so on. Often each link clicked from “Home” (if a hierarchical path is followed) corresponds to a new level of the website.
It is important to note that these levels represent how the website information is structured conceptually–often from general (high-level pages) to specific (low-level pages). User mental models mirror this conceptual structure. The levels do not necessarily correspond to file location and directory structure; a website could have Level 6 pages when all the website files are in the same directory on the server.
Numbering the web pages is a very helpful way to keep everything organized and simplifies communication about the website. The home page is 1.0 and second-level pages are 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. Third-level pages under 1.1 would be 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, etc. A simple website structure, shown in a site outline format, would be:
1.1 Who We Are
1.1.1 Our History
18.104.22.168–22.214.171.124 Staff Bios
1.2 What We Do
Each web page receives just one number and each number is unique; cross-links to that page reference the number. From the number alone we know at least two things about the page: the level at which the page occurs (for example 1.2.2 is a level 3 page, determined by counting the number of digits) and the path to reach that page (1.2.2 is down the 1.2 path in the global navigation). Clustered pages end in .x (e.g., 126.96.36.199-1.2.4.x) if that cluster is prone to frequent changes; if the number of web pages in the cluster is stable then a fixed final value can be provided.
The importance of numbering the pages cannot be overestimated; there is nothing quite as embarrassing during a client meeting as scrambling to find the relevant diagram and/or documentation for a page based on just its name. This problem compounds as the number of pages increase, and if different pages with the same name (such as “FAQ”) exist in multiple sections of the website. The unique number assigned to each page eliminates those concerns.
Visually mapping the structure
Tree diagrams are used to visually present the structure. The choice of a horizontal tree diagram or a vertical tree diagram (See Figures 2 and 3) usually comes down to a consideration of website breadth and depth as well as the author’s preference for working in portrait or landscape orientation for the printed diagram.
If a horizontal tree diagram is created, the levels of the website progress from left to right, with Level 1 on the left and successively lower levels to the right. Vertical tree diagrams progress from top to bottom, with Level 1 at the top of the printed page and successive levels further down the page.
Figure 2: Horizontal tree diagram
Figure 3: Vertical tree diagram
As a matter of necessity, the site diagram is often divided (chunked) across multiple printed pages (See Figures 4 and 5). The first diagram page contains Level 1 (“Home”), Level 2 (global navigation and other non-global pages off the home page), and the legend. Subsequent diagram pages focus on each Level 2 section that has sub-pages, detailing those areas of the website. Should a given Level 2 section go quite deep (to Level 6 or 7) more than one diagram page may be required. Generally this diagram chunking can only be avoided with small websites (all the content can be shown on one diagram page) or if you have access to a printer capable of spooling output on a continuous sheet of paper.
Linking and page relationships
Solid connecting lines between rectangles indicate standard links moving from a parent to a child page. In practice, these standard links usually occur in a navigation bar or from a link in the text of a page. Arrows are not used to indicate directionality for standard links; the visual flow from higher to lower levels in the tree diagram suggests the usual direction of the linking. The ways in which lines connect and diverge reveals valuable information concerning how navigation functions in the website (see Figures 6 and 7).
For linear page sequences, arrows are often used to signify the flow through the process. In cases where the directionality is more rigid (such as a checkout process) the arrow would be pointing in one direction between the pages (See Figure 8). Situations where linearity is an option, but not a requirement (such as a multiple-page article with both “Previous” and “Next” links and links to all article sections on each page), could be represented with a double-sided arrow between the pages as well as a solid line to which all the pages connect. Linear page sequences are also generally displayed from left-to-right, because the pages stay at the same level in the website structure. To resolve numbering issues (which arise because all the pages are at the same level) it is helpful to use a shared page number and add letters (e.g., a, b, c) to the end of that number for successive steps/pages.
Cross links are a different matter entirely. Those relationships are represented by dotted lines, generally ending in a rectangle containing the numbers of the cross-linked pages (see Figure 9).
The purest definition of a cross link is a link to a page in a different area of the website (e.g., a link from 1.3.2 to 1.5.3), although in practice links within the same section (e.g., a link from 1.3.2 to 188.8.131.52) are often labeled as cross links, especially if the link traverses multiple levels. Quick links on a home page would be labeled as cross links. In cases where cross links are to pages on the same diagram page, an arrow can be added to the dotted line to show directionality.
External links are represented by a labeled icon in close proximity to the page containing the link (See Figure 9). The placement of the icon outside the rectangle is intentionally done to emphasize that the link is external. Incoming links are shown in a similar fashion, using a special icon placed in close proximity to the affected page; showing such links is a relatively rare practice.
Pages that fit into a given grouping (such as global navigation or a local navigation bar) can have that relationship shown with a dashed box that is given a descriptive label (See Figure 9).
Displaying non-web content types
Websites contain a wide variety of content types that do not fit into the “web page” category, including Word documents, PDF files, PowerPoint slides, Excel spreadsheets, executables, archive formats, even images meant for downloading. In this approach the most important difference between web pages and other content types is that the other content types do not receive page numbers. The rationale is that these documents are not part of the website navigation structure, so a number is unnecessary. After all, how often do you load a Word document from the home page in order to navigate deeper into the website? If appropriate, a different identifier (something other than the page numbering approach) could be used to track these content types; such an identifier would likely map to an entry in a content inventory.
What the site diagrams do reveal about other content types is which pages link to them. For example, an icon representing PDF files is added to the legend and that icon is placed inside the rectangles for all pages linking to at least one PDF. The placement inside the rectangle reinforces that this document is available from that web page (See Figure 10). As mentioned earlier, further details about the PDF could be given in a content inventory or perhaps in a footnote. The decision to minimize information about the file (such as the file name, the number of PDFs linked from the page, and any other relevant data) within the diagram is to reduce visual clutter. These tradeoffs between descriptiveness and clutter occur fairly often.
Adding the metadata
If one thing is certain about site diagrams, it is that they are continually changing along with the websites they represent. Version numbers are quite useful for tracking these changes (accidentally giving developers an outdated site diagram causes all sorts of havoc), as well as dates for when the document was created and last updated. URL and site name are also included and authorship information is important, should questions arise. Labeling the diagram pages and including the section number (e.g., 1.3) for multi-page diagrams also saves time when trying to track down a specific web page inside the structure.
Diagramming in practice
In using these diagramming techniques, it is important to keep an open mind and to be creative. The ultimate goal is to produce a diagram that accurately describes either what has been created or what is yet to be created, and do so in a manner easily grasped by various stakeholder groups.
Given the diversity of structures and functionality in websites, it is likely that at some point a unique situation will arise, one that goes outside the guidelines noted in this article. This happens most frequently when diagramming large websites at the start of a redesign; large structures invariably have odd pathways arising from multiple authors and/or the addition of content over time. In those challenging situations it is best to iterate and innovate, along the way perhaps creating a novel way of representing that structure or interactivity.
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Prior to entering the teaching field, he worked in industry as an information architect at a web design firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his spare time he works as a freelance information architect and web designer.