The first step in building a website is to chart out a sitemap. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m referring to a written sitemap, not an HTML or XML sitemap like the ones you submit to Google — that’s something different. A sitemap is useful because it helps you visualize what the various pages of a site will be and how they will be related to each other. They range in complexity from a simple sketch on a whiteboard to a full blown, annotated relational diagram or interactive component.
1. Identify audiences
The first step is to identify any and all groups of people who will be visiting your website. Common segments include current customers, potential customers, employees, potential employees, partners, vendors and competitors. You may want to further break down these segments into smaller groups like customers in a particular industry or looking for a particular service or product. Once identified, think about what action(s) you want each segment to ultimately take and the steps needed to get them there.
2. Brainstorm & collect content
Go through each audience you defined in step #1 and collect any existing content you have for them. Next, identify any new content that needs to be written or re-written in order to to help them with the conversion path you discovered. Don’t worry about writing this content at this stage — just identify at a high level what needs to be created.
From the content brainstorm you did in step #2, you should start to see patterns emerging that will help you begin grouping similar content together. Sort the content collected in step #2 into the appropriate audiences. In this step, you’ll also decide whether it’s appropriate to put multiple pieces of content onto a single page or whether they should be broken up. You’ll also start to see a hierarchy of information ranging from “high level/simple” down to “more specific/complex.”
4. Chart & refine
Using a whiteboard, pencil and paper or some other non-permanent writing method, start to chart out the site. Start with the home page and draw the site’s navigation first. When creating the navigation menu, first identify what your primary target audience is and ask, “What questions would this audience need to have answered before they would take the action we want them to take?” Common answers include “Learn a little more about our company/approach,” “Find out what services we provide” and “See examples of our work.” Using these answers as examples, the pages of the navigation might be ABOUT US, OUR SERVICES and OUR WORK. From there, you can then draw lines and relationships between the other sub-pages you’ve identified and grouped and quickly see how your sitemap will come together.
5. Review & revise
Once finished, grab another person and have him/her review and debate each point of the sitemap with you. Make any appropriate changes, then move on to the “wireframing” stage where you begin to draw rough sketches of each page.