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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SEO Through Blog Feeds? Oh God Please…

So during the Web 2.0 conference I was exposed to continuing babel on the idea that feed syndication and blog marketing in general is yet the next one trick pony to fill all the needs a corporation might have due to unfocused marketing dollars. Here’s the general mistake with this logic… You see, yes blogs are syndicated but they are only “favored” and read often when they actually reach a level of communication the reader wishes to participate in. Blogs don’t become popular because the keywords that are included within them are presented in mass. They become popular because they represent a level of expertise and communicate clearly with skill. Even if you view briefly the blog of Robert Scoble, Technical Evangelist for Microsoft (and commonly quoted in a sick attempt to further poison the marketing industry into thinking RSS will save their jobs) you notice that rarely is a Microsoft product actually discussed on his blog. Rather he widely discusses the process and features of other companies and services. Why? It’s simple – to show expertise. To show that he isn’t trying to just sell a topic of focus.

It’s important that we look at all phases and features that come from the Internet as basic forms of human interaction. Think about it. I once bought a car from a local dealership in town… and throughout the life of that car, on holidays, my birthday, and the various days that ended with “y” I would receive a “Hey! Enjoying your car? Come buy another one!” It was extremely annoying, and when thinking about buying a new car I went elsewhere. Now, a few years ago I bought a house. After I bought the house I received friendly reminders from my Real Estate Agent on tax benefits, important maintenance tips for the house and all sorts of helpful things that didn’t push me to buy something directly, only a gentle mention through the sticker on the envelope of “We Love Referrals”. So what did this do? Must I really explain?

Think about it. When my Real Estate Agent would send me information it became almost a subconscious thought that this person cared about my wellbeing, they were being informative and helpful. A level of trust was built. When you have brand identity and brand trust, you have customer loyalty. I still to this day refer her to everyone I know, and several members of my family have bought property with her.

Now looking at customer communication in such a grassroots way we see that marketing is still about people, and that people aren’t stupid. If you treat something like a billboard, they are going to notice it as such. Just as people use banner blocking software and anti-spam software. It’s only going to be a matter of time until there is a browser toolbar with a “blog quality” meter to inform the visitor of your intent to be informative or snakeoil them.

Now, I’m not referring to corporate blogging in general here – I think corporate blogging can be a great thing.  Microsoft’s Channel9 is a great place for developers as well as Microsoft’s IEBlog kept everyone up-to-date during the development of IE7.  I’m talking about blogging and mass syndication as a way to continue the act of just spreading keywords throughout the net because they now are in your blog and able to be syndicated to the masses and show up on various pages everywhere.

It’s time to wake up people! You want to get popular? Be good at what you do, help the community at large and your level of expertise will be recognized and appreciated and thus your blog will continue to move upwards in the ranks.

But hey, this is just how I see it, I don’t have an MBA from a fancy college, nor do I have the word “Marketing” in my title. I am simply human, and thus a consumer.