Card Sorting Your Way to an Improved User Experience

The Internet really brings some great benefits in further making information that normally wouldn’t be easy to find more accessible to the masses. The phrase “information in power” is often quoted, and just as with power, with great information comes great responsibility to those users who might need to find something amongst that information. Card sorting is a common practice in information organization that has been used in the web by information architects and designers since the mid 90’s.

All of us have our own way of looking at multiple items and categorizing them into groups, often times however the people we might be categorizing them for would have sorted them a far different way. This is where card sorting plays it’s role, it offers us a peek at how the users of a website might categorize (and thus search for) information on an ecommerce or large-scale information rich website.

It’s really simple to get started; a card sorting session doesn’t need to be overly technical by any means and is very cheap to execute. A Sharpie or pen and a stack of index cards are all the supplies you will need. Then there are the participants… if you have a physical store, ask some of your repeat customers. If it’s a company or organization, ask your clients or members. The key rule is, if you are a stakeholder in the website you aren’t allowed to do any sorting. Just watch and listen.

Using the index cards, write the names of the items you are trying to sort on the cards. Use only one item per card. For example, if I am making a cooking website perhaps I want to sort recipes, so my first card might read, “Lasagna”. Then for each additional recipe I would continue to write the name of a recipe down on it’s own individual card.

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TWO TYPES OF CARD SORTING EXERCISES
With your cards ready to go there are two primary ways a participant might work with the cards:

Open Sorting is a session in which there are no pre-established groupings. It is up to the participants themselves to determine the groups of items and the names they would call the groups. If you can, this is by far the best way that you will understand how a user of your website will be looking for information. You will be able to gather far better results if you ask them to sort the items without restriction.

Closed Sorting is a little less helpful in my personal opinion as you have already created pre-established groups for the participant to sort their items into. For example, on my fictitious cooking website I might have told the participant to sort them into groups of “Italian”, “Mexican”, “Desserts”, and “Other”. To really mix things up I could add groups of “Pasta”, “Pastry”, and “Poultry” to give them some options that might give me a further understanding on how people might use my cooking website. Most designers and architects, myself included, do not encourage closed sorting because of the general restrictions on the results gathered.

The procedure is really just that simple. Take your stack of index cards and ask your participant to sort the items on the cards, as they feel most comfortable. There are no rules, or wrong answers. Don’t give clues of, “well that item has pasta in it, are you sure you want to put it there?” Just hand them the cards, and get out of their way. When the sorting is over feel free to ask questions to better understand their approach so you might best understand your website users behavior when looking through your products or information.

Remember also that your results will vary. You might find in some cases that your various participants are very consistent in their organizational style, while other times you might find that they vary widely. Don’t get discouraged, and realize that this is just a tool to help you understand your users, it is not a silver bullet to perfect organizational design and it may not apply as well to all websites being developed. No one is grading you here, so take your time and have fun with it.

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