As a stickler for order and organization, I have always believed in the UX research method of card sorting. It plays a vital role in building a meaningful and purpose-driven information architecture by segmenting and categorizing elements that are likely to belong together, and putting disjointed parts as discrete independent elements. Building an information architecture that aligns with your target group’s expectations is one of the many challenges that I have faced as a designer, on many occasions.

Card Sorting | Ionixx Technologies

In this blog, I will take you through how card sorting has been an important research technique that I have fallen back on to get through the problem-solving aspect of designing a product in my everyday work life.

Card sorting, simply put, is a quantitative research technique that is used to evaluate the structure of your information and content from the user’s point of view. It’s useful in designing a strong and effective information system for your site. In a card sorting study, participants are asked to group information written on cards according to their mental models. There are also many online tools these days to conduct remote card sorting with your participants. Card sorting can be employed to understand how your user’s knowledge is structured and create a design that matches their standards.

Why do you need card sorting?

The importance of a fluid information architecture that matches your user’s mental models cannot be stressed enough. An information architecture that is user friendly reduces drop off rates and ensures that your users find what they’re looking for in the shortest possible time. Below are a few instances that make the case for card sorting as a valuable UX research tool:

It premises itself on the principle of multiple classification:

The principle of multiple classification states that users view information in different ways and also employ different methods to find it. Offering many classification systems is crucial to help users find what they are looking for faster. Not only are classification systems important, the manner in which the information is structured within is important as well. In order to have an efficient classification system, card sorting can be used to understand how your users are grouping information together.

It supports the principle of focused navigation:

Like the principle states, it is important to keep your navigation menus centered around a specific theme. Do not club different categories together, the menu would lose its relevance and your users would not be able to make sense of it or find what they are looking for. In order to group your menu items in a way that makes sense to your users, use card sorting and allow them to group the categories as they see fit. This ensures that your navigation menu is strong and users have easy access to everything on your site.

Different types of card sorting

Open card sorting: participants are given a stack of cards with topics on them and are asked to group items as they see fit and also assign relevant titles to them.

When to use:

  • Initial product planning phase
  • When designing a new website
  • Improve an existing one
  • Replace an existing structure that is not performing well

Pro:

  • No restrictions on participants
  • Gives useful insight into user’s mental models
  • Inexpensive

Con:

  • Less control over the results
  • May result in patterns that are not useful

Closed card sorting: participants are given two sets of cards, one containing content and the other containing labels. They are then asked to match the cards containing content with the labels they think that fit.

When to use:

  • To understand and evaluate how existing content supports the labels from a user’s perspective.
  • Find confusing labels that do not resonate with the user and make the necessary changes to fix it.

Pro:

  • Allows you to validate whether the predefined labels fit the user’s mental model.
  • Works effectively in ranking features.
  • Can be used in the evaluation phase to test design.

Con:

  • Doesn’t reveal how users naturally categorize content.
  • Can’t be used in evaluating navigation structure.
  • Lacks flexibility as users do have complete freedom over the sorting.

Hybrid card sorting: this method combines both open and closed card sorting to effectively deduce the user’s mental model. Participants are given the choice to sort the content cards into predetermined label cards or create their own categories to accurately group the cards as they see fit.

When to use this:

  • To generate ideas for grouping information
  • To fill missing gaps in the information structure
  • When open and closed card sorting does not provide the expected results.

Pros:

  • You can overcome the cons of open and closed card sorting.
  • Allows participants to suggest missing links

Alternate user research methods

1.Tree Testing

Tree testing allows researchers to test the hierarchy of the information displayed on their platform and how effectively users are able to find the information they need. Tree testing can be done very early on in the design process as you don’t need sketches or wireframes to conduct the test. In this method, participants are presented with a text version of the website/app’s information hierarchy and are tasked with finding a specific search item. Tree testing can be done at all stages of the design process and helps designers make informed decisions about their information architecture so users are able to find what they are looking for in the shortest possible time. Tree testing is also popularly known as ‘reverse card sorting’ due to its nature of seeking information as opposed to sorting it.

2.Diary Studies

This method allows you to collect qualitative data about your users and gain insight into their behaviors, activities and experiences over a period of time. Users are asked to maintain a diary and log their daily activities. This method allows researchers and designers to truly immerse themselves in the user’s shoes and understand how the product will fit into the user’s life. This method can lead to new product features, which touchpoints the user will interact with and other useful insights.

Card sorting is widely used and an important technique that helps you understand how users process your content. It can be used at the beginning of the design process, to restructure old content that no longer serves its purpose, or to include new content as well. Other popularly used research methods include A/B testing, eye tracking, focus groups, user interviews, usability testing, field studies, five second testing, surveys and analytics.

What are your experiences with card sorting? How has it impacted product design? I would love to hear from you.

Author Bio

Thendrl is a student of Psychology working as a UX Designer at Ionixx Technologies. She believes psychology and design go hand in hand in creating user-centric products that redefine the future of UX.

 

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