Can someone tell me SIMPLY the difference between site maps and IA Documents?


The course I am taking on UX Design has us working on both information architecture hierarchy documents as well as site maps but they don’t explain the difference and some of the course content seems to imply they are the same thing or at least they don’t make clear the distinctions. If you put the two documents side by side what would be the difference between the two for the same site or app?

I was postulating that maybe the difference is, bottom line, that an IA hierarchy document is about content types or categories while a site map document is about how one would navigate to that content but I’m not sure. Both documents present organizational structures for content.

Could one say that the IA document is about the content types or categories your site will have as in “my site will have page about dogs” while the site map shows where the dog content will be located in your Pet Store’s web site hierarchy and how users will be able to navigate to it?

BONUS POINTS: Should the FUNCTIONS one can do on a site or an app be part of either

  • an Information Architecture document OR
  • card sorting exercise OR
  • a site map OR
  • all three?

By function, I mean like in a task management app, being able to attach a document to a task you’ve created is a function.


I think of a site map as a rather dated thing personally. Was mainly meant as an alternative form of navigation because the usability was so poor, lack of systems thinking, or what a computer would read to index it. That said I see IA as how the information/content is structured in the “main” interface for the user to naviagate,


Thanks Laci, yes I remember those kinds of site maps too but I’m actually talking about a paper site map, a document that might be created as part of a UX development for a website or mobile app. :grinning:


Hmmm, strange. It is my understanding that Info Architects create sitemaps. I’ve never heard of an IA map.

Let’s call in @maadonna (who literally wrote the book on Info Architecture)


Yes, I’ve also heard an IA Map called an IA diagram, a Information hierarchy model or an IA Hierarchy document but for now let’s just call it the IA Document. (I may have been using the term IA “map” incorrectly)


What a terrible confusion of terminology. As an IA map, they are probably talking about a concept map or concept model, which is a big-picture view of how various parts of a complex content-based system would fit together. A site map is a more detailed, practical view of what pages you might need and how they relate to each other.

Whether you use one or the other depends on the complexity of the project. I’m working on whole-of-government IA at the moment and have enormous concept models to show how the whole thing will fit together, and more detailed sitemaps for small parts of the site.

When built, ‘site map’ also refers to the structure of pages on a website…


@maadonna Yes it is terribly confusing and I made it worse by calling it an IA map which must be something I made up in my own mind!

But whatever you call the IA document, I am still not clear how it would look different than a site map if both were done for the same Web site. You said something about how the IA document describes how content fits together but a site map shows that too.

Is the difference that a site map is about navigation and is typically structured like a tree’s root system with the home page at the top level, secondary pages one level down and so on like this:

while an IA document might just be a listing of content types structured in lists, columns or by some other means?

NOTE: The only examples of IA documents I can find on the Web look exactly like a site map to me

Also what about:

Should the FUNCTIONS one can do on a site or in an app be part of either

  • an Information Architecture document OR
  • card sorting exercise OR
  • a site map OR
  • all three?

By function, I mean like in a task management app, being able to attach a document to a task you’ve created is a function.


So you have to think of something that is much more complicated than the example you are working on - that’s a super-simple site that doesn’t need a concept model. Imagine you were building a really big website for a hardware store and you had all the products, plus store information plus information on how to do projects plus workshops that you can attend in person. And you want to make sure that when a person is looking at a product that they can see details of relevant project info and workshops at their local store. You’re not going to try to put that all in a traditional sitemap. You want a concept model that shows how the big pieces relate to each other.

And for the rest - there is no one way to do IA. There are all kinds of websites and designing for a small site with unstructured content is different to designing something huge and full of structured content. You have to think about what you’re trying to achieve, who you are trying to communicate with and what they need to know. I change my diagrams, prototypes and models for every single project depending on what I’m doing.

Have a look at Mike Atherton’s content modelling workshop - I think it will help:


An interesting related article:
Site-flow vs User-flow and When to Use Which


@HAWK Thanks Sarah - I’m starting to sit comfortably with the idea that what I am now going to call an “IA Content Model” is about groupings of content that may or not indicate relationships between the groups with arrows. (A “mind map” for the site is how I am now approaching it)

That leaves the site map for showing hierarchy which implies a bit of navigation just because of the way it is structured.

My latest quest is actually on the second point which you are referencing and that is should the site map show the functions or actions one can execute on a particular page and, if not, what UX deliverable does have that information?

I’ve only had a few inputs so far but the direction seems to be heading towards “no” they don’t belong on a site map but rather on a User Flow document. The article you linked to seems to support that.

The lack of any real standards or even naming conventions makes understanding what each deliverable does very confusing at times for people just starting to formally study UX. I actually think this is a problem the UX profession needs to address and one that my former career field of Public Relations had to struggle with too since people were commonly calling anybody that did car sales to media relations as being “in PR.” But then the Public Relations Society of America began to build standard definitions and workflows which wasn’t easy at all because PR is broader than even UX. PRSA even came up with certifications and tests.