User flow vs sitemap: the difference between sitemaps & user flow

User flow vs sitemap: the difference between sitemaps & user flow
Slickplan
By Slickplan
Apr 06, 20228 min read

User flow vs. sitemaps. They have such similar sounds when you think of them in the context of a site, but are they the same? What differences do they have and what similarities do they share? We’ll talk about those things and why they should be important to you. To best serve your end-users, having a working knowledge of the two should be of interest to you. Getting them done right should be even more critical. We’re here to help. Let’s get into it.

What’s the difference between a sitemap and a user flow diagram?

The difference between user flow and sitemaps is best related to an actual map and the directions used to get where you’re going. Think of a sitemap as a map of everything while user flow diagrams show the routes you can take to go from point A to point B.
Sitemap vs user flow concept
They’re related, have a few slight similarities and share a common goal. They both add order to a site to improve your customers’ overall user experience (UX). Having a map to get around is great but having directions is better. Everything on the map is where it is for a reason and the user flow gives us directions using the most efficient route. There may be more than one way to get to the end-point, but efficiency is the name of the game. User flow diagrams take that map and find the most preferred way to complete a task. If there are dead-end routes, they can be removed or rerouted.

Sitemaps

Sitemaps should be considered an umbrella term in this article. There are many types of sitemaps and it depends on what you’re using them for that will determine which one you should select. It’s kind of like saying you want a dog when there are endless breeds to choose from.

Sitemaps are a list of web pages within a site that illustrates, through visuals or code, the structure of the product and how to navigate your way around. Many factors go into creating a solid sitemap — and in turn, a solid product. User behavior, for one, can come into play when deciding which pages go where. User experience design tells us just that; it’s about the user. It should be easy for anyone to use at every entry point, touchpoint and through til the end of the user journey.

Don’t rush through your sitemap design, be thorough in the planning because it makes a difference in the end.

XML

Google XML sitemap example
Considered to be the most crucial file type in the site mapping family, the Google XML sitemap is essential to SEO functionality. Google XML files are not easily read by humans and are designed to be used by search engines to better recommend pages from the list of URLs they contain. These can be put together by an XML sitemap generator in seconds with a minimal number of clicks.

HTML

HTML sitemap example
The HTML sitemap is the most common type used by customers directly. You would typically find a link to this style of sitemap in the footer along with the FAQ link, About Us and so on. The HTML sitemap is made to be easy to read and navigate by humans.

Visual

Slickplan visual sitemap tool
A visual sitemap is, as the name suggests, very visual. This is a user-focused sitemap to illustrate the website structure in a way that is incredibly easy for people to understand but has no value to a search engine. Visual sitemaps are helpful for many reasons but are particularly useful for site planning. Our free visual sitemap generator can help you map out your site’s structure with little effort. All the tools and features to create beautiful visual sitemaps right at your fingertips.

User flow diagram

User flow diagrams are used to determine how users will interact with your site and get tasks done in the most intuitive way possible. They’re invaluable in their ability to point out friction or pain points users could experience in the process of completing tasks.
Login process flow chart
This isn’t just in the checkout process or to make money, but for anything a user must do to complete any tasks, however small. For example, signing up for a newsletter, completing a survey, signing up for an account — anything that may include a workflow interruption as a whole can be ironed out with better task flow. A user flow diagram should explain one specific task at a time and how to complete it. There are tons of user flow tools available (we’re one of them) and they can make a world of difference to your end-users and your bottom line.

User flow vs sitemap differences

In the following six examples, we’ll discuss the main differences and similarities between sitemaps and user flow diagrams. The list isn’t, nor could it ever be, complete as they are detail-intense undertakings with many facets carried out by design teams. This should, however, give an idea of how they compare.

Is this used by customers?

The short of it; yes and no. User flow is used by customers but more indirectly. They should experience it rather than see it, in the way a human uses air but doesn’t need to see it to know it’s there. Sitemaps are mainly for the benefit of search engines.

Sitemaps, of course, can be used by customers directly, depending on the type of sitemap file.

Can I find a copy on the site?

You won’t find a copy of any user flow documents on a site because there’s nothing for a user to actually see. User flow just determines the route you’ll take to get something done. A sitemap can be viewed on sites if it’s provided by the site owner.

An HTML or visual sitemap may be available as a guide to the site’s structure, but again it’s primarily used by search engines.

Do I really need this?

That’s a tough one. Sitemaps are always needed if you have any care about search engines recommending your content during relevant searches. User flow really depends on what your site’s purpose is. One could argue that everything we do on a site requires some sort of flow. So yes — necessary…because you can’t avoid having a flow but optimizing them is your choice.

User flow is most visible in scenarios like checking out a purchase or signing up for something. As for sitemaps, you don’t need one to be available for customers to view, but it isn’t hard to provide a copy — so long as you keep it up-to-date. And if you can, why wouldn’t you? A sitemap maker can quickly help with this; the options are out there and you’re in luck because Slickplan is one of them.

Sitemap vs user flow similarities

Are these used in the development process?

They definitely are. A sitemap tells a developer how to structure the site as a whole and the user flow tells the developer how pages should connect to achieve a proper user flow. This is all part of your UX design strategy and is highly important to developers.
Web developers using sitemap
The design process should include these items to produce the best site flow possible. It increases usability overall and makes the web design process a lot smoother as there are fewer gray areas for your design teams. This applies to websites, mobile apps and everything in between that a user needs to navigate. E-commerce can have its own technical challenges, and thus, ecommerce user flows can come in handy here.

Do I need one to do the other?

This may seem like a chicken and egg theory, but there is a straightforward answer. For user flows to be most optimal, you need a good sitemap base to work from. You can’t build proper user flow without knowing where you’re going. Sitemap first, then user flow.

That would be like being asked to drive from one location to another in 60’s London without a city map.

Is this related to information architecture?

This is definitely related to your information architecture but let it be known they’re not the same either. Sitemaps and user flow diagrams are part of the architecture process. An information architect is in charge of taking info and arranging it to best suit the users.

While they both do fall into the IA family, they still march to the beat of their own drum and should be tackled individually…but in conjunction with the other. You may find issues in one or the other while working on them, and the similarities end there. They all have their own skill set and instructions for success. This one requires a lot more discussion, though, as there are some common misconceptions in the information architecture vs. sitemaps debate.

Our conclusion

Hopefully, the differences between these tools have become clearer. While they share similarities, they’re better described and executed individually. Neither should be overlooked. We’ve discussed similarities and differences, but other factors can only be explained by immersing yourself in the tasks and how they relate to their counterparts. They can even be practiced in "dummy" scenarios for sites that don’t exist.

The key takeaways:

Sitemaps are lists of URLs that illustrate site structure.

User flow diagrams use the site’s structure to determine the best way to complete tasks within that structure. These are the directions used to do something in the context of the overall map.