Quantifying Common Sense with Card Sorts

Posted on Tue, August 26, 2014 in Development Tips, Web Design, by Eric Warner

How often have you been frustrated trying to locate specific information on a website – navigating aimlessly through a few layers of a site – only to give up and use a search engine to locate the information? When that happens, it's a terrible outcome for both the audience and the owners of the site. Without overstating the obvious, website owners should always do their best to respond to concerns around visitor retention and site usability. If your audience's needs cannot easily be met on your site, what is to prevent them from meeting their needs elsewhere? This is why the information architecture of a website, while often overlooked, is paramount in planning a successful Web project.

When coordinating the structure of a site, it is crucial to optimize the organization of content so that it's intuitive to the audience. This helps to ensure users are able to find what they are looking for with a minimal amount of frustration. Often times only a few people already involved in the planning and development of a website will have input into the organization and menu structures of the site's content. What a project stakeholder might consider as 'common sense' may actually be biased by over-familiarity of the content. Wouldn't a better approach be to have the audience contribute their insights in a measurable, meaningful, and non-objective way?

Information architecture (IA) is the structural design of information ecosystems, which focuses on organizing and labeling content. A useful tool in IA is a technique called card sorting, which does involve sorting actual cards, in real life or virtually. It allows potential users to remotely gather feedback ensuring that the menus and navigational structures of websites are intuitive and content is discoverable to your customers.

In this post I'd like to introduce you to card sorting techniques to help optimize your site's IA.

Card sorting informs the IA of your website by defining navigation and menu structure. The cards or items being sorted represent major content groupings for your site.

There are two types of card sorts, open and closed.

  • Open Card Sort: Participants in this type of card sort are given topics, which will form the content of a site. They are asked to group (sort) cards into categories, which they feel accurately describe the content. The cards in this sort might include a list of services that your business offers and a list of products that you sell. Very often the way users think of your content is different from the way you would see it.
  • Closed Card Sort: In a closed card sort, participants place content into pre-defined categories. This type of a sort might be useful if you already have a site structure but are trying to place content on the site and want to use users’ insights to figure out the best place for new information.

Open and closed card sorts can be used together to first define the content categories, and then used for a new group of participants to determine the best structure for your site.

Card sorts not only help organize site content, but also allow you to understand your users’ expectations as to where certain content should be placed and how the information will be navigated.

Traditionally, card sorts were carried out in live sessions and participants used printed cards. There was a lot of set-up and coordination. All users had to be gathered at the same time and a facilitator guided the session, which usually took an hour.

Online solutions such as Optimal Sort by Optimal Workshop streamline the card sort process and allow for participants to complete the time sort asynchronously. Their platform is intuitive, easy to use, and reduces the whole process into three easy steps:

  • Input your cards (content items)
  • Set up your survey
  • Email the link to your participants

The raw data from the survey can be downloaded for your custom analysis or you can use the built-in reports to compare similarity matrices, or dendograms. The system will even provide you with sample IA structures based on most popular groupings of content.

By analyzing this 'crowd sourced' data, it becomes possible to identify consensus in your test subjects and create more audience-friendly structures on your website.

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