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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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. Websort.net is recommended.
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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