Card sorting is a technique predominantly used to help decide and evaluate the information architecture of digital content, for instance a website or mobile app. Card sorting looks at how people rationalize and logically group and organize items. This allows you as a product manager/owner to not make assumptions about how the architecture and organization of you content should be but makes this decision user driven.
It’s not uncommon to develop digital products that flop when it comes ease of navigation despite all the insight and expertise of a product team. It’s weird to think you can know a domain inside out and have a well-versed team but for that same team to be blind to a user navigational needs.
So why does this happen? Well oftentimes we make assumptions i.e. that a user will obviously think content A and B should be placed together because it’s a common sense grouping, we make decisions on behalf of users because we consider ourselves the average user of the product or website. However, we’re not – we’re advanced users, we’re product managers who are engrained in the product and spend every day using it so we by default know exactly why things should be and are but not necessarily where the average user thinks content should be. We are not the stereotypical user.
Also, often time we are constrained to make our product reflect organizational structures, particularly in large corporate organizations or we’re unfortunately subject to people pulling rank in our organizations i.e. the HIPPO (highest paid persons opinion) influences how we structure content.
This is where card sorting can be a useful exercise and way of understanding your user and their thought process. If you want to inform your information architectures, journeys, terminology, navigation structure etc then you should consider performing a card sort exercise.
How Does Card Sorting Work?
The first thing you do in card sorting is create cards that have words or phrases on them i.e. terms that describe pages in your website for instance – basically the cards are the elements/content topics. Typically you should try and limit this to a manageable size, which is arbitrary. You may have a content inventory if you already have product already built and live.
There are essentially two types of card sorting – open and close card sorts. In Open card sorting the participants are asked to organize cards into groupings that are meaningful and logical to them, it’s a good way to elicit how users name things. This is a good way to prevent use of product jargon making its way into your product as what becomes common vocabulary for us the product manager/owner is not always the best verbiage and nomenclature for a user.
The second type of card sort is the closed card sort. In the method you pre-define categories and ask users to sort content against predefined categories.
A particularly useful complementary technique to deploy during the card sort exercise is to ask your users to think aloud i.e. talk out loud their rationalisations for why they are doing things in a certain way. It’s a great qualitative insight.
Naturally you will want to run this exercise with a representative sample of users – either on an individual-by-individual basis or as a group exercise, however not when this is done as a group activity there’s sometimes a bias for the loudest persons opinion to influence results. Your quantitative insights comes from your analysis of which cards were grouped against what category or alongside what other cards, something that can be measured very easily.