Card Sorts - The Secret to Intuitive Websites
Whether you’re designing or redesigning your website, grouping and organizing your content can be tricky.
- What will your users look for first?
- What content do they value most?
- What is the most likely and most efficient path of navigation through your website?
Most importantly - how can you make your website efficient for both your users and your business?
Unless you can read minds, organizing your content can feel a bit like a guessing game.
While it’s not nearly as time efficient as mind reading, there’s one ancient trick that works every time – asking. Or, in this case, card sorting.
So, What Exactly is Card Sorting?
Card sorting is an inexpensive and reliable user-centered design method that allows you to actually learn your user’s thought process when they navigate a website like yours. It’s a fairly low-tech process with a lot of payoff.
In a nutshell, card sorting requires participants to sort various cards, each with a different topic or keyword, into an order that makes sense to them. It’s an easy, no-fuss way to organize content, eliminate unnecessary categories, and find out where you might be missing some puzzle pieces. You can even tailor the process to your needs, working with individual users or a group of users, either in person or remote.
Basically, card sorting is a direct lifeline to your users’ preferences, helping to cut out all of the guesswork involved in organizing new content or redesigning an existing website.
It’s a real thing, we promise.
Finding the Right Method for Your Goals
Before you begin, it’s crucial to have an understanding of your target audience and/or current users. You’ll also need to have a well-developed concept of your information architecture or the structure of your website.
Once you’ve got that set, take some time to figure out exactly what you’re looking to learn from each card sorting session. The majority of people use card sorting for at least one of the following:
- Defining and building the structure of your site
- Creating a clear concept of the best content for your homepage
- Finding the most efficient keywords and path of navigation
Depending on what you’re looking to accomplish, you’ll use one or more of the following types of card sorting.
Open Card Sorting
Open card sorting is a lot like an open-ended question. With this method, you’re asking your users to take various categories, labels, and keywords and organize them into groups that make sense to them. It’s a generative method that provides answers to questions like whether or not your users understand your content, and what they deem to be the most logical/easy path of navigation.
Open card sorting is the most helpful when you’re just starting out and looking to gain an understanding of your users’ thought processes and patterns, as well as common keywords. It can also be used to generate new ideas for your content structure. For example, how to categorize blog content, sorting or grouping products, and the most efficient order for your FAQ’s and various support questions, etc.
Since participants can come up with as many groups as they’d like, and can name them whatever they want, you’re more likely to receive a wide range of answers.
The real value is in the process.
As your participants sort their cards and decide on groups and group names, ask them to think out loud while they work. It’s unlikely that you’ll get the exact same answer from any two participants, but you will have a direct and clear understanding of why they chose the groups and group names that they did. When you’re just starting to design your website, this information is priceless.
Closed Card Sorting
Closed card sorting is useful when you’re one step further in the process of designing your website. By now you’ve got a basic idea of your information architecture – the hierarchy of your content, your basic sitemap, categorization of content, navigation, etc. You may even be in the process of redesigning an existing website.
Unlike open card sorting, closed card sorting provides each user with category and group names, which they will then use to sort your topics and keywords. This is especially helpful when adding new content to an existing structure, but can also be used in conjunction with open card sorting in order to gain more feedback.
Closed card sorting will pretty much tell you whether you’ve hit the nail on the head or missed it by a few marks.
Using this method, you will learn if your users agree with, understand, and can easily navigate your website.
It’s also an efficient way to reduce the number of groups and categories you have, whether you had planned on doing so or not.
- If the vast majority of your participants utilize every group provided and seem to have a clear understanding of how your content fits under each one, then you’ve nailed it.
- If you find that certain groups have almost no cards under them or have been ignored completely, take some time to revisit their use and whether they’re actually valuable to your website.
Hybrid Card Sorting
Hybrid card sorting, as the name would suggest, combines both open and closed card sorting so that participants start with a predefined set of content groups, but can also create their own as they see fit. Depending on what you need to accomplish, your hybrid card sorting session will lean more toward open or closed.
An Open Hybrid Card Sort will:
- Allow you to provide a few categories as inspiration while mainly encouraging participants to create their own categories
- Help you answer lingering questions about the data collected from an open card sort
A Closed Hybrid Card Sort will:
- Allow you to provide predetermined categories (as you would in a closed card sort), while encouraging participants to create a few categories of their own should they see a gap in those that you’ve provided
- Give you the opportunity to see if your participants come up with a category you had not thought of but find valuable
- Avoid instances where participants put a card under a category that only kind of works, simply because that’s the best option available
Reverse Card Sorting
Reverse Card Sorting, like closed card sorting, is an evaluative method. In this instance, you’ll be evaluating whether or not your content hierarchy is efficient and easy for users to navigate by reversing the task at hand.
As defined by Wikipedia, during reverse card sorting
each card contains the names of subcategories related to a category, and the user should find the card most relevant to the given task starting from the main card with the top-level categories.
This type of card sorting is most efficient after you’ve completed a series of open, closed, or hybrid card sorting sessions and want to be absolutely sure of the resulting content hierarchy.
Once you’ve decided which card sorting method you’re going to use, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Group Sessions vs. Individual Sessions
To decide whether or not you want to work with a group, ask yourself this: is the sheer amount of data more important to you, or are you more interested in the thought process that leads your participants to make their decisions?
If you’re in need of a large amount of data, especially if you have a limited amount of time to gather the data, group sessions are your best bet. Your participants can work independently in a group, or as a team, allowing you to gather as much data as you need in a short amount of time without needing to find additional moderators.
However, if you choose to let your group work as a team, be cautious of any group dynamics that may dominate the session and could skew your data.
Card Sorting Software vs. Moderated Card Sorting
This decision also comes down to thought process vs. amount of data. If you’re looking to gather a mass amount of data in a short period of time, card sorting software will be your best friend. OptimalSort is just one example of software that allows you to input your cards, any questions you have for participants, and options you want to provide either before or after the session. You can also recruit participants through card sorting software programs.
By using these programs, you eliminate the need for moderators, a location for your sessions, the physical cards, and note taking.
Card sorting software will also give you the ability to download all of your raw data into one file, which you can then analyze, export, and easily share with your team.
Just a Few Last Tips…
For best results, randomize the order of the cards in each session. This will help you see different patterns and provide more insight into different thought processes.
If you’ve chosen to focus mainly on remote card sorting sessions using software like OptimalSort, consider including moderated participants for qualitative data.
Open and closed card sorting are the Wonder Twins of card sorting. As Usability.gov explains, open card sorting will help you learn what works together, while closed card sorting will help you test whether or not your labels are intuitive to users.
Limit the amount of cards you provide participants with. The human brain can only process so much content in a specific amount of time. The last thing you want is an overwhelmed participant. Some suggest that 40 – 60 cards is a good amount to work with, while others have had successful card sorting sessions using over 200 cards. It all depends on your goals and your chosen granularity, although we would suggest using less than 100 cards for your first card sort. You can always expand the selection later in your testing.
On that note, also consider telling participants exactly how long you expect the session to be. With an end time in mind, they’re more likely to stay focused and less likely to be overwhelmed.
Still not quite sure which method, or a combination of methods, are best suited for you? Contact one of our business developer monkeys and we’ll help you with all of your content management needs!