Tag Archives: card sort

Card sorting for more than navigation

I recently had the opportunity to practice a research method that is often used to help organize a website’s navigation. Card sorting is a research method used to help structure a site, product or other system. Card sorting helps you to get better insight in to the user’s mental model, as well as how they expect things to be structured and organized. I have written about my experience using card sorting before in another article titled, “UX Deliverables: Card Sort.”

Today I want to discuss using card sorting as another way of understanding how users organize information. Again, card sorting seems to be primarily used to organize navigation. In this study I used card sorting to have customers prioritize and sort education topics based on their interest in that topic. In other words, I had them show which topics they had an interest in, and those they did not.

“Card sorting is a user-centered design method for increasing a system’s findability. The process involves sorting a series of cards, each labeled with a piece of content or functionality, into groups that make sense to users or participants. http://boxesandarrows.com/card-sorting-a-definitive-guide/

The Reason

A customer is signing up for a new loan account. This is a great opportunity to give them more information about loans and finances. We wanted a better understanding of the types of information a person would want in the onboarding process. And as important, we wanted to know the types of information a new customer did NOT want.

The Method

No need to get all fancy and high tech. The great thing about card sorting is you can do it in the dark – well sort of. You don’t need a computer to gain great insights from your participant. Just use some index cards (or regular paper) with words or phrases typed or written on them. Have a flat surface where the participant can lay out the cards. Have a few extra blank cards and a marker just in case the person wants to create new cards. This happens more than you would expect. Do your best not to provide too much information or any definitions because you want to simulate a natural experience. In the context of her home, she would not have anyone explaining the terms to her. So we need this situation to be as realistic as possible.

The Process

Present these cards – in no particular order – to the participant and have him/her organize them in to categories that make sense to him/her. In this case, the categories were predetermined for the participant, but then he/she could create more if needed. In fact, in this study, one participant did create his/her own category. While the person is sorting out the cards, encourage him/her to talk through the process and explain his/her rationale. It’s this information that is actually much more valuable that the final results in many ways. To get a better understanding why he/she is putting items in to groups helps you to understand his/her mental model. This will help you to create a better structure and design. If you know why people group things together, you can anticipate future groupings if you need to add more choices later. Also, customers tend to organize things much more differently than the business would. It’s better to see the customer’s point of view so that you can make his/her journey successful.

The Results

What I love most about a card sorting is two things that will often surface: the surprises and the trends. Both ends of the spectrum are so wonderful when card sorting. As the administrator of the study, you want to see common themes emerge and bubble up to the surface. This helps you to organize topics cleanly and in a way the customer will enjoy. If multiple people expect things to be grouped in a certain way, that makes your life as an Information Architect easier.

The other side of the coin is items that surprises the research team. This could be especially helpful if you use a term that the participant does not understand. Most likely it’s industry or technical jargon – which should be avoided at all costs! If you do come across terms that confuse the participant in any way, consider changing or modifying it. In fact, you could ask the person what term they would use instead. Again, asking the person for feedback will often enrich your research and aide in creating a better experience.

The End

After the study, share your insights with the team. It’s even better if members of the team are sitting in the research session with you so they can see first-hand what the participant said and did. But if you can’t have those team members who are involved in the product directly observe the card sorting session, sharing a brief, insightful report is the next best thing. The lesson here is to keep the card sorting method in your pocket for potential use in the future. Card sorting does not have to be reserved strictly for determining navigation. It’s a versatile tech-agnostic method that can be used to organize information quickly and easily. Try it out next time you need to organize and structure information.

Card Sorting for the Enterprise Interface


Card sorting for enterprise software Jennifer Blatz UX Design
Card sorting is a process one can use to create an orderly system. It is being used here to organize a portion of medical enterprise software.

Card sorting can be used for much more than just organizing a website’s navigation. In fact, that is why information architecture is such a broad term. And one tool for helping people organizing and creating a structure is a card sort.

So what exactly is card sorting? According to the Wikipedia entry for card sorting: “Card sorting is a simple technique in user experience design where a group of subject experts or “users,” however inexperienced with design, are guided to generate a category tree or folksonomy. It is a useful approach for designing information architecture, workflows, menu structure, or web site navigation paths.”

Now that we know what it means, how do we use it? Or in other words, why do we use it? In my case, I wanted to test a few of the doctors who use my company’s enterprise software. We have a portion of the software that is Electronic Medical Records, aka EMR. I wanted to see how different participants thought the information should be structured in the patient’s EMR.

  • Should each entry be strictly entered chronologically?
  • And if that is the case, is the oldest entry first or newest entry first?
  • Should the most important information be surfaced to the top somehow?
  • Is there a way to create bundles of information or sub groups?
  • What does the user think the best way this information should be organized?

All of these questions could prompt hours and hours of discussion and speculation. So instead of endlessly talking about it, let’s get direct feedback from the users.

I know that many UX Designers use post-it notes on a wall to organize thoughts and create a taxonomy. However, what do you do if you don’t have a wall? And what if you do if your tester is not located in the same room as you? In other words, you need to perform the card sorting remotely.

I looked high and low for online and electronic resources to perform a card sort. I found that most of the online options were either too expensive or simply did not offer the functionality I was looking for. In the end, I settled on the free Mac program called XSort. This great little program (though visually very outdated) had the basic features I needed to perform a card sort. It allowed me to have more than 10 cards, it had the ability for the user to create subgroups within groups, and the cards would not automatically “snap” in to place like some services would. The users could place the cards wherever they wanted to on the screen.

So far, we have performed a few pilot tests with a handful of doctors to work out some bugs. The main lesson we are learning is that what the user is saying as he/she is going through the card sort is actually more valuable than the actual results. So instead of “throwing the test over the wall,” or in the online word, just sending out a card sort link and viewing the results, it is actually better to have the user talk you through their thought process. What is also valuable is that being able to moderate the card sort, and to answer technical or clarifying questions probably produces more accurate results. If a user is confused about a term or abbreviation, he or she might categorize that differently, and thus throwing off the card sort, than if the tester clearly understands the term. Finally one more valuable gem that I realized while performing cards sorts: Keep your mouth shut! Let the tester talk you through the awkward silences. If you must speak, ask probing and clarifying questions. But do your best to try not to suggest ANY way that a tester could group items. They tester will struggle at first. But that is OK. Just let them absorb all the cards and try to make sense out of them the best way that they can. You will get great user feedback if you actually let the user provide you that unbiased feedback.

The bottom line lesson here: Yes kids, card sorting can be used for more than just organizing navigation of a website. Try it out!