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Card Sorting & UX Research: What Clients Need to Know

Card sorting is a powerful technique used to create order out of chaos. It’s a tool can that provide both quantitative and qualitative user feedback on your designs. In short, a card sorting activity asks users to organize a set of cards with content types into piles. It seems so simple, but the outcomes are a clear representation of  a customer’s mental model, identification of jargon to remove and the best terminology to incorporate, and data to prioritize customer tasks across different types of users. Few tools in the user experience (UX) toolbox are so powerful.

CAN YOU FIND WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?

Content is the problem you didn’t know you had. Too often design gets blamed for content being difficult to find or understand. Content is usually an afterthought, organized and created in a model that matches legacy systems or in a way that makes sense to the product owner without exploring how a customer thinks and makes sense of the information.

When created correctly, well structured content leads to higher levels of engagement and higher rate of conversion, as well as a better perception of the experience leading to higher brand loyalty and Net Promoter Scores.

When created without thought, jargon-y complex navigation means your customers won’t find what they are looking for. And for your business, that means the cost of lower digital engagement as well as a higher cost to serve those customers through several customer service channels. More likely,  it means customers take their business elsewhere.

WHY YOU NEED CARD SORTING

Making content decisions is difficult for two reasons. First, it is political. There can be too many cooks in the kitchen and fragmentation of ownership and decision making. Second, many product owners believe that they know best, despite the fact that they are experts users fluent in the corporate lingo and information architecture. Most forget the mantra “I am not my user.” Card sorting is an effective tool to cut through the politics of content and the blinders of experience by allowing the voice of your customers to be heard and used as decision making tool.

As mentioned above, card sorting is an activity where real customers are asked to organize a set of cards with content types written on each, into piles that make sense to them. For example, people participating in a library website card sort might group cards with the words fiction, non-fiction, and poetry into a pile called books and cards with dramas, documentaries, and Oscar winners into a pile called video. This seems simple, so why is it so powerful?

The answer is that card sorting can be quick and cheap. Over the course of a few hours, by having a few conversations with customers you can get insights on content and the structure of your website, which will determine its success. The outputs will help you greatly improve your customer’s ability to find the things they need. Card sorting as an activity has been tested and the results validated as reliably effective time and again. I should caveat that, like many tools, the effectiveness increases greatly in the hands of an expert, but it is still a robust tool in the hands of a novice.

If you’re looking for more information how to run a card sort, here are a few good resources: Wikipedia, Usability.gov, OptimalSort.

MORE THAN JUST NAVIGATION

Card sorting is a general purpose tool. It originated as a tool to improve navigation, but it can be used for much more.

One great example of the extended power of card sorting is in content prioritization. While you may be able to organize similar content together, not all similar content has the same importance. For example, all shoes (sandals, tennis shoots, cleats, loafers) may be grouped together, but in the winter, boots are more popular or higher value to the business or your users. Card sorting techniques can help you elicit both from internal stakeholders as well customers how they would prioritize content, and the results are an aggregate of quantitative data that will help you avoid hours of decision making meetings.

Secondly, by allowing a diverse group of customers to complete a card sorting, analysis can begin to tease out the various types of users that you have and how to better serve their unique needs. Users are not a monolithic group. There are many types, which have varying goals and tasks. By understanding how each group thinks about and prioritizes content, you can design more relevant and direct pathways through your site. Or, if one group is a higher priority for the business than others, you can focus your decision making based on your understanding of their mental models.

THE POWER OF CARD SORTING

Poor content and information architecture decisions, far more than design, can torpedo your digital efforts. Complexity in content structure, failure to grasp content priorities, and a lack of understanding of how your customers think about and understand your content has a cost. That cost may be in additional effort to serve customer needs or it may be in lost opportunity with abandonment and attrition. Card sorting is an activity that can help you make the right decisions, and create a solid foundation on which to build your design.