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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.