We describe the web in spatial terms, and these terms suggest a whole mode of thought. While “cyberspace,” thankfully, fell out of favor after its initial traction, we’re still left with the language of physical spaces to describe digital abstractions. We speak of architecture, and of structure. We’re on a given platform, we say, and what else might we say to replace it?

It’s not that these terms are wrong, per se. Abstraction is abstract: we need to yoke concepts to something a bit more concrete so we can speak fruitfully about them. The problem arises when the terms we use to describe a medium begin to circumscribe our imaginations.

Consider a the site map, a common artifact in the process of designing a web site.1 During a design exercise, especially while working with clients, someone—client or colleague—will often ask to see a proposed sitemap. When this happens, I find it helpful to ask just what they hope to learn from the sitemap. If it’s just about getting a sense of the high level navigation items, that can be better accomplished by discussing, specifically, navigation. If it’s about editorial planning, it might make sense to discuss each content type on its own. When it’s about user flows, however, it’s usually time for a much bigger conversation.

Using a sitemap to discuss how a user might navigate—again, a word about space, and movement—through a collection of pages made a lot of sense when static pages comprised discrete websites.2 With modern content, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What a given user sees depends on context that potentially includes factors like their device, their location, their past behavior. When this is the case, it’s really an opportunity to talk about structured content, and how it’s not the same thing as the static content that comprised much of the early web.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t have something someone calls a sitemap when planning or designing. If a diagram of some kind is useful, by all means make that diagram. It’s important, though, for all concerned to understand the limits of that diagram. More and more often, spatial metaphors and maps are less representations of a given digital product than they are representations of a given state of a digital product (and a given state that may not much resemble how a user interacts with it). As users became more comfortable with digital products and devices, skeuomorphism fell out of favor, because users could encounter digital products as digital products, not a digital representation of their desk blotter and what sat atop it. Similarly, those creating digital experiences should challenge themselves to think beyond spatial metaphors, and to design digital products on their own terms.

  1. I mean here sitemaps as a design artifact, and not an XML sitemap. 

  2. The names Navigator and Internet Explorer surely contributed to these metaphors of traversing space, too.