Card sorting - Part 3

David Humphreys and Tania Lang
March 13 2009

This month we include the final article in a three-part series on card sorting by David Humphreys and Tania Lang and we share our tip of the month.

Card sorting Part 3 - Card sorting tips and common traps

Very basically, in a card sorting session you want to give each user in the group a set of cards to sort into categories that make sense to them in order to design intuitive menu structures. In our previous two articles we've given an introduction to card sorting, and some tips to help you set up a card sorting session.

Card sorting is a great tool for understanding user mental models but there are many traps that practitioners fall into that often affect the quality of the results. This month we look at some tips and common traps for associated with card sorting that we have learnt over the years.

Card writing tips and traps

How you word the cards is probably the most important part of the whole process and is often where people go wrong. Here are a few card writing tips:

  • Try to avoid the use of 'Information about'. These are superfluous words and you will no doubt end up with a group titled "Information about…"
  • Try not to include multiple topics on one card E.g. "Car insurance policy details and quoting" is potentially 2 different topics:
    1. Car insurance policy details
    2. Get a quote for car insurance.
  • Having said that, do try to include different possible schema on the cards so you don't drive users to a certain type of schema e.g. task based, audience based, topic based. Mix up tasks, user groups and topics in the content objects, and change the order so you don't lead users. For example:
    • Get a quote for compulsory third party insurance – QLD Residents
    • NSW Residents – home & contents insurance claim.
  • Ensure the first keywords are not the same on many cards otherwise we can guarantee participants will group these together and use that keyword to label the group e.g. HR policies, HR forms, HR recruitment procedures, HR contacts etc. Other common examples that have caught us out in the past include "Information about…" and "How to…"
  • In addition to the last point, don't use the same one or two keywords on many cards e.g.
    • "Policies and procedures" if card sorting for an intranet. Try to use alternate words to describe the same thing such as "Guidelines for how to…." and "Process for …"
    • "Online" such as "online tools" and "services online" and "online forms".
  • Keep tasks short - no more than a brief sentence
  • Don't provide too many tasks as it overwhelms users - if you have a large number of content objects – limit to around 50-60 tasks and give to users in two batches:
    • Batch 1: about 30 representative cards from across the whole site
    • Batch 2: the remainder of the cards which they can just add to their existing groups or create new groups.

Facilitating the session

Demonstrate the process using a fun activity The best way to describe card sorting to somebody is to get them to do it. Have a small set of cards, no more than 10 -15, and use something fun. Pictures are best because they are easy to recognise and sort. We use pictures of various cartoon family members: Jetsons, Simpsons and Flintstones; and ask users to sort them.

We discuss the results and explain this is what they are going to do for the session but with content from the client's internet site. This is a fun ice breaker activity that only takes a couple of minutes and also helps communicate what you want them to do.

Set up participants and give instructions Each participant should get their own piece of paper and set of cards (unless you're doing a group card sort, in which case each group needs these items). Ask participants to spread all their cards out and encourage them to group similar items in vertical columns – it means it's easier when it comes to sticking their cards down at the end.

Don't give all the instructions about what they have to do at the start. It is too much cognitive load and people won't remember. Monitor individual's progress and give them the next instruction/step when they are ready. This is where a co-facilitator can help.

Give them space – but offer help too!

  • Walk around the room the whole session and check how people are going and that they understand all the cards. We give participants highlighter pens to highlight any words or phrases they don't understand.
  • Ask participants to avoid using generic terms, such as 'miscellaneous'.
  • If they have time, we might ask them to break up some of the categories into sub-categories and give those names too.
  • Before they leave, check your understanding of their work. Make sure that you can read each participant's writing and get them to clarify if you're not sure what something means.
  • Once participants are finished and are sure they have finalised their groupings, stick everything down with your tape. Before you go to pick up their sheet, run your fingers over the page to make sure that all the cards are secure. Users hate to see all their hard work end up in a pile on the floor!

Analysing the results Now that you have this wonderful data from your users, it's time to make it work for you.

There doesn't appear to be any consensus regarding analysis techniques. We have heard of practitioners taking 2-3 days of effort to enter and analyse all of the data but we generally only spend a couple of hours. Our preference is generally to spend less time analysing card sorting results and developing the first iteration of the information architecture (IA) and to spend more time testing and iterating the IA with users until we get it right.

We find that simply entering all the first and second level categories into an excel spreadsheet and spending a bit of time colour-coding like headings is a great way to start. This gives you a feel for the common themes that came out throughout the session and provide a good starting point for designing the first iteration of your IA.

When finalising the IA and specifying where content belongs, most of the time it is fairly obvious but we often refer back to the original sheets created by the participants to see exactly where each participant put a particular card.

In most cases, the top-level IA will be very clear by the time you've analysed all your results. However, that's not always the case. For one of our clients, participants consistently grouped information in 2 ways. To resolve this issue, we actually developed 2 versions of the IA, and tested them both to determine which one was going to work better on the actual site.

Try to use the terminology that was supplied by your participants in your final IA – these are the terms that your actual end-users came up with, so they're likely to make sense on your site as well.

If you're looking for a tool to help you with your analysis, Donna Spencer has a great spreadsheet you can use.

Usability tip

The value of search logs

Users don't worry about spelling when they're searching for something - and they certainly don't always know what your company is calling the latest product. Make sure that your search engine works for users by giving results that make sense for their enquiries – even if they don't match your company's branding. How do you do this? The easiest way is to use your search engine logs.

You should be able to get a list of the most popular search terms for your site – make sure that results for these terms are accurate and easy for users to understand.

You should also look at which popular search terms return no search results on your site. This could be because of spelling mistakes in search terms ('car insruance' for example) or simply just that your organisation only talks about its specific product name ('motor vehicle' insurance for example).

Make sure your search engine can supply results that will meet the needs of these users, or suggest new search terms. You may even have to create specific search results pages for search terms. If it's a highly searched for term, it's definitely worth your while.

Search logs are a practically free way for you to get an insight into the terminology that your customers are using – don't waste the opportunity!

Categories: Card sorting,Information Architecture