Tag Archives: accessibility

How hard is it to do a proper sitemap?

24 Mar

A Government friend of mine sent me this link quite a while back.

It is a sitemap for a WA Government agency, the Department for Child Protection, who’s site at the time was still a real mess since some machinery of government changes made it into a new department (the homepage at the root of their domain should give this fact away).

Anyway, back to the sitemap.

Best practice

For best practice on sitemaps, we once again call on Jacob Nielsen, who’s advice issued in 2008 has not changed from his original advice on the topic in 2002:

The two main usability guidelines for site maps are:

  • Call it "Site Map" and use this label to consistently link to the site map throughout the site.
  • Use a static design. Don’t offer users interactive site map widgets. The site map should give users a quick visualization without requiring further interaction (except scrolling, if necessary).

Ok, let’s give credit where its due. The Child Protection sitemap passes these two basic criteria with flying colours… or does it?

If you look at the code used to generate the map, you’ll see the following:
About DCP
Office Of The Director General
Office of the Director General

Analysing this code in detail, you’ll see that the information isn’t structured as an unordered list. To create the indents and show visually there is some form of hierarchy to the information, they have simply added spaces to the left of each line item.

While this method of display would be great for those blessed with the gift of site, it simply doesn’t work for those who can’t see and rely on assistive technologies to browse websites (screen readers, et al).

What do the state standards say

The Website Standards: Common Website Elements document describes the set of common website elements that are required for a consistent layout on all WA Government websites. However, this does not lay down and hard and fast standards as to how sitemaps are to be presented.

So, let’s go to the Guidelines for State Government websites:

4.4.2 Recommendations for Western Australian Websites

  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites are at the very least Priority 1 accessible
  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites should meet Priority 2
  • Priority 3 improves access to web documents for all user groups and is the optimum strategy for Western Australia government websites.

W3C accessibility guidelines must be applied when developing a new website. For information on Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3 elements refer to W3C’s List of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If utilising commercial developers, it is advisable to ensure Priority 3 or Priority 2 are included as well as Priority 1 as a requirement in any tenders or contracts.

However, for existing websites, a business case should be undertaken to evaluate the cost of repair versus the cost of re-building to reach compliance.

Ok, that’s a lot of text. In summary, you should meet priority 1 as a bare minimum, and be aiming for priority 2.

A couple of basic tests give this a pass on Priority 1, so they scrape by.

But should they scrape by?

My opinion, no. What’s been done here is a really dodgy sitemap, which for a sighted person is hard to read, and is impossible for a non-sighted person to make sense of its structure.

You’ll see in Nielsen’s 2008 study, they looked at the sitemaps of multiple entities

Now while the 2008 study (associated report, now available for free download) found that sitemaps were rarely used, with only 7% of users in the test group turning to them, Nielsen argues (and I agree) that “they’re the only feature that gives users a true overview of everything on a site.”

Nielsen continues:

A site map lets users see all available content areas on one page, and gives them instant access to those site pages. Site maps can also help users find information on a cluttered site, providing a clean, simple view of the user interface and the available content. Site maps are not a cure-all, however. No site map can fix problems inherent in a site’s structure, such as poor navigational organization, poorly named sections, or poorly coordinated subsites.

There’s also aspects of sitemaps that have importance around search engine optimisation outcomes, but that’s a whole other topic best left for another time.