Build Navs of Steel with a Card Sorting Exercise

Card sorting exercise isn't the latest fitness craze — it's a reliable, inexpensive information architecture method for finding patterns in how users would expect to find content or functionality on your website.

It’s simple, cheap and effective — what’s not to like? All you need are some index cards or sticky notes, a pen and some test subjects to reap the rewards of significant usability data.

We’ve have had great success using card sorting exercises on some recent projects so we wanted to summarize this useful approach for our friends and fans:

indexcardsCard Sorting Process

First, figure out what content you’re testing. Content for the card sort should be representative of the site (or the part of site that you are investigating) so that natural groupings to be formed. Each item on your list should be placed on a card with a simple name and short explanation, if necessary.

Write these on about 30 to 100 cards, and have some blank cards and a pen handy in case in case participants want to add something you didn’t include.

Now, bring in your test subjects and ask them to sort the cards into groups that make sense to them, having them verbally articulate why and how they organizing their groups. When they’re done sorting the content, users give each group and sub-group a name that makes sense to them.

Card Sorting Approaches

There are two ways to run a card sort exercise:

  • Open Card Sorting: Participants are given cards showing site content with no pre-established content/navigation groupings. They are asked to sort cards into groups that they feel are appropriate and then describe each group. Open card sorting for rearchitecting and usability improvements allows participants to create the structure that is most intuitive for them.
  • Closed Card Sorting: Participants are given cards showing site content with an established initial set of primary content/navigation groups. Participants are asked to place cards into these pre-established primary groups. Closed card sorting is particularly useful for gaining additional feedback after an open card sort.

Expected Results

This exercise can help answer many questions that need to be tackled throughout the information design phase. For example, there will likely be some areas that users disagree on regarding groupings or labels. In these cases, card sorting can help identify trends, such as:

  • Do the users want to see the information grouped by subject, process, business need, or information type?
  • How similar are the needs of the different user groups?
  • How different are their needs?
  • How many potential main categories are there?
  • What should those groups be called?

Card sorting is a cheap, fast and effective information architecture tool. And because it involves user input (instead of a designer’s gut feeling), the resulting structures and patterns put you on the right path to creating intuitive structure and organization.

Keep in mind that card sorting is one of MANY tools that you should use to develop your site structure—it should be used in tandem with other helpful analysis including an audience matrix, use case scenarios, content audit and needs analysis.

Layla Masri

About Layla Masri

Layla is a co-founder of Bean Creative. She leverages her ad agency background and 15-plus years as a marketing and web copywriter to maximize interactive impact for strategic planning, usability/accessibility, and digital promotion.
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