Navigation menu design with card sorting

Discovering structural themes for intranets and websites based around people’s expectations, rather than how you’d like the world / site to be.

Often used to discover the thoughts of users regarding ‘where’ they would like to find topics on the intranet, card sorting is a low-tech exercise that helps people influence the design of a site. By collecting real-world information based on people’s expectations, rather than relying on the design or intranet team’s logic and wishes, a site can be built that is people-centred and meets users’ needs.

Download my card sorting crib sheet [PDF; 425KB] [right-click to save] which covers the basics of this article.

Card sorting isn’t a panacea, it won’t cure everything that ails your intranet. But it’s a good place to begin, rather than starting from a ‘desired design’ or a ‘wish’ about how people ‘should’ use your intranet. Yes, expertise, experience and logic can come in and influence the number of menu items and the groupings, but we should begin with real-world expectations of the users, rather than assumptions that designers and ‘intranet experts’ bring.

Card sorting process

Participants can work in a group or alone, and should be representative of the audiences of the intranet / website. It may be beneficial to ensure plenty of ‘non-expert users’ participate. Several sessions will be needed, and 5 to 30 people should be canvassed from a variety of departments / audiences.

  1. Scores and scores of index cards / note cards are prepared with topics and actions (hand written) based on business needs and any previous intranets / information systems in use. More topics can be created during sessions and marked ‘new’.
  2. Participants should work through the stack of cards, laying them out and moving them into groups as they deem suitable. It is natural for the number of groupings to be fluctuate throughout the session; participants should feel free to start a new group or combine groups as and when they feel it is natural to do so.
  3. Participants might work quite quickly during a ‘first pass’ of the cards, and reflect and discuss their reasoning more during ‘second and third passes’. A ‘don’t know’ or ‘miscellaneous’ pile can be used, and reviewed throughout the session.

Results are recorded and later analysed to discover patterns and consensus. The intranet team and designers should review the results to create the final navigation / structure of the site.

Rinse and repeat.

Modern intranets / sites offer more than a simple ‘reading experience’. Many support business content, crucial communication, collaboration, and action / task execution.

Sites can focus on the needs of the people who use it, rather than any single expert. Designing the intranet around the organisation structure may seem obvious, but has few benefits for new employees or those outside of a particular department. Such a design can emphasise ‘silos’, hobble knowledge sharing and increase repetition.

“Task-oriented, people-focussed.”

Matching the site’s structure to the expectations of daily users enables people to work more efficiently and effectively, ultimately benefiting the company’s bottom line.

Open or closed

The number and / or names of categories can be predetermined by the intranet team / designer or by previous rounds of card sorting. If predefined, card sorting is known as ‘closed’. If participants develop as many ‘theme piles’ as necessary, it’s known as ‘open’ sorting.

Online sorting

Physical cards bring an immediacy to something that can seem ephemeral, but when expediency is needed, online card sorting is a quick way to gather expectations.

A major benefit is that an online service will analyse and factor-down the results for you. is recommended.

Read more from James Robertson (@s2d_jamesr) at Step Two Designs – card sorting.

Check some of my photos on card sorting.

Card sorting isn’t new, but it is clever, but it’s not the only exercise when considering your Information Architecture. What do you use? What flaws do you find in card sorting? What else is needed?


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  1. That’s awfully nice of you, thank you. I 100% believe that User eXperience (is that the correct capitalisation? [No.]) needs to be somewhere near the core of what I do, which is user-centred content and task-focused architecture / design; I just don’t think I know anything close to what I should to be a ‘UX’ person!

    How can we go beyond card sorting do you think? What else is required, beyond empathy, experience and repeated testing?

  2. Hi Wedge – how would card sorting work to discover multiple navigation paths to the same content? ie. does card sorting lock you into a linear, hierarchical approach to organising your content?

    For example, as an end user I would probably like to be able to find the Expense Claim form under a heading called Forms. But I might also like to find this same form under a heading called Finances, Popular Documents, Travel Process or even My Favourite Documents.

    As part of a card sorting exercise I would most likely have to choose only one category for this form. And the category that gets the most votes is where the form ends up.

    There is a good article that describes this scenario called: Card Sorting Doesn’t Cut the Custard.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    I’m unsure if card sorting is used for discovering pathways; I think card sorting is only the first tool to discover menu items. I think the hierarchy of menu items, and sub-items can be crafted by using experience and further user testing.

    Even if menu items / site structure appears to be rigidly linear, I find there are always multiple pathways to the same content. This is usually because of left-hand menus and ‘related links’ on the right-hand side.

    A rigid hierarchy is complemented by intelligent search, tagging and multiple-categorising I would say.

    Looking at your example, which is a lovely ‘real life’ example, I’d say that card sorting merely lays out the structure of the main menus, and card sorting can be limited and limiting in this sense. Further thought needs to be given to make sure the navigation pathways meet different people’s expectations, and this can be done with an intelligent CMS. Can it be done without intelligence? Can it be done in a flat, basic, website? Yes, if the authors are willing to build cross-links and related links, which isn’t a certainty.

    Rigid hierarchies ‘physically’ place a content item into a specific location, *but* that doesn’t mean that there’s only one pathway for a surfer to reach it. Other pathways should emerge because of cross-linking, ‘related content’ widgets, aggregation, *curation* and the whole concept of ‘publish once, access many ways’. (Reminds me of relational databases, and the search engines supporting good CMSs.)

    I use card sorting to inform the main menu design, but ‘structure’ can be more dynamic if needed. Certainly, we don’t all think the same way and a Finance Form may not be anywhere ‘near’ (structurally speaking) the Travel Process, but thematically they’re strongly related, and so whichever route one chooses, one should be offered the next step – there should be “no dead ends”.

    Thanks for the link, it’s good to have it here – I do feel the author could have gone further in saying what to do, rather than what not to do.

    But hey! I was asking *you* what more we have to do than simply sort cards!

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