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 This great little program (though visually very outdated) had the basic features I needed to perform a card sort.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!