One of our favourite ways to bring research methods to the sorting process is using a card sort. Card sorting is an activity wherein you ask users to sort different information into different categories. It’s called a card sort because traditionally the words and labels being sorted are written on index cards. You ask participants to take each of the index cards and put them into piles – putting “like with like” and grouping together cards that are similar from their perspective. We still use traditional paper cards, but lately we often use card sorting software as well.
In a closed card sort, you give participants specific headings and let them sort different words or labels into those headings. Say you’re designing a website. The best way to make your website navigable is to put the information where the user expects to find it. With a closed card sort, you find out where users put information, and get some great insight into what they expect to find and where they expect to find it. Fulfilling these expectations is one aspect of what makes a great website.
The second technique with card sorting is the open card sort. This is more of an exploratory technique, when participants sort information into their own piles (rather then having pre-defined ones). They then come up with their own label for each pile. The great thing about this is that not only do you see what participants put together, but also what sort of labels the participants give these groups, so you can compare your nomenclature to theirs and make the right adjustments.
Why Card Sort
There are innumerable benefits to card sorting. It allows user input at a very early stage, when changing the information structure or the nomenclature is as simple and inexpensive as crossing out a word on a post-it.
Secondly, by getting informed user insights into expectations about navigation you stand a much better and more informed chance of fulfilling those expectations. Finally, card sorting can be a great way to build a shared vision with stakeholders.
By building a card sorting exercise into your project – prior to or during design with users, or during strategy with stakeholders – you quickly sort out what’s important, what isn’t, and where it all goes.
By completing a card sort with stakeholders, it can help you (and them!) decide what’s really important for the users. It feeds back into fulfilling user expectations, which in turn fulfills your own goals and objectives.