Don’t Forget Your Flashcards!

Posted by Paladin on March 17, 2009

Card sorting is a beneficial and often forgotten tool of the trade for Information Architects.  If you want to revamp, redesign, or start from scratch with your website then you should take advantage of card sorting.  If you already have a staff that uses the Internet then you should have a good audience for the card sort.

The most difficult thing about a card sort is getting people to think outside of the box.  If you have an existing website and you want to redesign it, you may not want to use your site in the card sort.  This is especially true if you are using the card sort for an intranet portal.  Chances are that your staff uses your intranet portal as silos of information and once they see familiar categories they will have a very difficult time at rethinking their current methodologies and practices.

To start your sort you will need at least 1 package of index cards.  They don’t have to be giant in size, but don’t use the mini cards.  You want people to be able to read what you have written on the cards.   The next step involves writing categories or navigation headers on each card.  If you are starting from scratch with a new site, take a look at some of the other websites in your industry.  Write down those navigation terms and headings that make sense for your business as well as some you think don’t fit as well.  When creating a card sort it is easy to become very involved in the process and to start customizing the sort for your ideas only.  Remember, you are using this sort to get feedback from everyone on the new site and you want to make sure that it is usable by multiple audiences.  Now because some websites can be very deep in tiers, you should stick with creating no more than three levels of the site.  This would include the top navigation, and then two sub-levels.  Make sure you have created enough cards for these levels.

Once you have created all your cards, you will need a large conference room or you can use multiple offices for the sort.  Ideally you should have at least two groups of people, and these people should be mixed together by experiences, cultures, gender, and education.   If you have a large conference room available, first start off by explaining the purpose of the card sort and the rules for the card sort (see below).

Now that you have your two teams of people (note: this will require that you have two copies of your cards), mix up each set of cards and give them to the teams.  Ask the teams to create the top-level navigation and the other sub-levels.  Because this is not a three-dimensional exercise, just ask the teams to lay out the cards either on a table or the floor in a top-to-bottom scheme.  The top-level navigation will be at the top, and the under each navigational header for the top level, place the next level, and so on.  To save space, a common practice is to stack cards on top of each other.  If you don’t have the large conference room, just place each team in a separate office and check on each from time to time.  In some ways this can be a better situation so that the teams don’t feed off of each other.

A time limit will need to be placed on the sort.  Give the staff at least thirty to forty-five minutes for the sort.  They should not need more than ninety minutes, and they will probably be bored at this point anyway.  After the sort has reached the time limit, take a picture of each team’s work.  The next step is up to you and time restrictions.  If you have planned this exercise to use an entire afternoon, a helpful post-sort activity is to bring the two teams to one room and go over the different ideas that each team came up with.  A whiteboard is helpful here and each team can write on the board their top-level navigation headers and some examples of sub-levels.  Discussion between the two teams here is very beneficial because the teams will learn how different people use the Internet and web sites.

If you are using the card sort for a redesign of the site and performing the sort with staff that already use the existing site, you will have problems with this exercise.  Your staff probably may not think the site needs to be changed, as it would involve changing work patterns.  You may want to do a sort with a competitor’s website and not tell your staff who the site belongs to.  At the end of the activity, compare the two teams and then try to apply the commonalities to your site.

Card sorts can be very beneficial to web site work or web-based applications.  One of the disadvantages of the card sort is the time it takes to not only setup the sort, but also the time involved in analyzing and reporting the data back to the users.

Sample Card sort rules:

(1) time limit – this should be enforced strictly
(2) No use of laptops/computers – this is to prevent users from looking at websites on the Internet
(3) Assign a team leader so that team members keep on task

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