Say you have a fruit shop. It’s a self-service store.
Imagine what happens if you put all the fruits together? Apples, oranges, mangoes, strawberries, everything, mixed up. A customer coming to buy orange will have to search different boxes to find it.
Unless it’s some treasure hunt game, such occurrences can be frustrating.
Now teleport this event to a digital space. Transform your fruit shop into an app/product. Apples and oranges are the information in your app.
Would the users like it all over the place? Definitely not.
Information Architecture is all about that. An efficient IA is clear about this— how do the users like the information to be presented? Card sorting is the trump card you can use here.
What is UX Card Sorting?
Card sorting is one of the UX research techniques. You ask users to sort the presented content in a way that makes sense to them. It helps to figure out how your users categorize information.
Categories can be complex. Your mind is filled with doubts about the type name, the placement under the right category, etc. And finally, there’s one question you all have,
“Will this make sense to my users?”
The better way to know is to ask users themselves. In card sorting, you write down the content on cards. You’ll observe how the users group them. Once it is done, you analyze the data to know what kind of structuring works.
Why is UX Card Sorting important?
You have a variety of content in terms of product/website. It is quite a hectic task to form a sensible structure out of it.
Here is something that adds to this complexity: user-centricity.
IA should be designed to put users first. To do that, you need to decipher their mental models. In case you are wondering, the mental model is what the users believe about the system. And it is based on previous experiences.
In easier words,
‘You only understand something relative to something you already understood’
And so, mental models differ from one person to another. Card sorting comes to your rescue. It can help you reveal different ways your target audience thinks. Therefore, your IA can be designed in a way not alienating any of your user personas.
Not only does it help in building a new IA, but also in tweaking the existing one. It is also an easy and cheap process.
UX is not a single big unit but a functional collective of a million small things. Card sorting contributes to that small thing, making a huge difference.
Best practices for UX Card Sorting
Card sorting helps you build a strong base for the product— the framework of content. Make a small mistake here, and you will end up seeing issues with your IA. Well, it could, in turn, affect the overall user experience.
It is like the littlest spark that can lead to a forest fire.
Here are a few tips for the process that can make you say, “I got this!”
1. Have an optimum number of participants
Neither less nor more— that’s the number of users you should recruit to participate.
Because if you have fewer participants,
- There’s not enough representation of your user base
- You’ll not have sufficient data to find out patterns
- No pattern means no mental models
And in case of more participants,
- You’ll end up with too many patterns.
- Hard to come to a conclusion.
- A possible follow-up of analysis fatigue.
The number depends on the type of card sorting. The project’s budget also has a say here. Yes, you need to provide participants with incentives. According to NNGroup, the optimum number is 15 participants. If your funds can accommodate a little more people, up to 30 participants are recommended.
2. Bring in actual users
Long before deciding the numbers, you should think about this:
‘Who are your participants?’
Answer: People who match the characteristics of your user personas.
Inputs from people who aren’t even the target users are null and void. You don’t need that as it’s obviously resulting in two things,
- Losing money
- Terrible effect on the IA decisions, which loops you back to the first point.
Choose your participants with caution. You need to make sure they are from the same demographic background as your target. The best thing would be to recruit your actual potential users.
3. Right text on cards
The card sort can turn out either worthwhile or not. And it depends on what you write on cards. If the text is confusing, users find it hard to sort. If they are confused, you will not be able to discover the mental models.
Don’t use the same words for different categories. Here is an example Jakob Nielsen uses to explain why.
Card set #1
Card set #2
The participants might either take the crop name (Strawberries/Wheat) or the activity name (Planting/Harvesting) as the primary word and will sort like this.
In order to avoid confusion,
- Use synonyms: Picking strawberries|Harvesting wheat
- Use non-parallel exposition structures: Planting strawberries | Wheat planting
Make sure that the text is short and precise. Adding images to your cards can help.
4. Don’t go overboard with categories
Before you decide on conducting a card sort, you must decide on what information you want to categorize. What pages’ information do you want your users to sort? It can be anything— your homepage content, your product functionality, your navigation bar, etc.
Remember this: Don’t include too many categories. It might overwhelm them.
When given too many choices, the increase in cognitive load gives your participants choice paralysis.
It results in reduced effectiveness of the process. Make sure that the cards (not categories!) are 40-80 in number. Now, if the cards are 40-80, you need to decide on the number of categories accordingly.
The categories should have a fair degree of difference. If not, it could be another confusion potential.
5. Give space for opinion changes
Humans have 2 types of thinking— fast (intuitive) and slow (analytical).
When they see the cards, they act quickly and sort the cards. As time goes by, they will start thinking analytically. It takes some time to form a whole picture of what is given to them.
Also, when they see more category names, they will have more clarity. They will feel some arrangements to be less sensible. They might want to rearrange the cards to make the sorting more logical.
Rearrangements can give you a better understanding of how they think. Convey to them that it’s okay to do so. Assure that there is no right or wrong here. It is all about how they want it to be.
6. Recognize and accommodate uninformed
At times, users find some cards do not fit into any category.
What would they do?
They might place it under a category forcefully. That is just because it is the only place that would make a little sense with a minute similarity. The rest categories are completely alien.
You can prevent this by having an ‘uncategorized’ section. Or inform the users to place such cards aside. It unveils one vital realization: What is difficult for the users?
7. Engage with users
The question ‘why?’ is the key that opens the door to knowledge. The card sorting process is no exception. Observing the process will help you know the ‘how’ and ‘where’ factors. But only when you engage with the users, you get to the ‘why’ part.
It is the cornerstone of the card sort.
Well, you will ask your users to sort the cards. However, you will not implement the structuring just the way they did it. You may take just a tiny portion of it.
But mostly, the process is to know why they place a card under a certain category. It takes us to your main agenda — find out how the users think. To get to the ‘how’ you need to ask the ‘why’.
Something like this,
- ‘Why do you think this card comes under this category?’
- ‘Why did you change the card from one category to another?’
It helps you know the different mental models. And so that you can come up with categories that are almost easy for all kinds of personas.
‘Because answers exist only to question’
But engage in such a way that makes them feel comfortable. Some people find it hard to focus when you speak to them amidst the process. Know the right time to ask and converse.
8. Communicate the goals
If the last ‘why’ was for you, this one is for the participants.
Tell them the goal of your card sorting process.
Participants need to know how their effort here would benefit your product. Emphasize the importance of this card sorting process and how its results will be used.
It gives them the picture of a higher purpose. With the awareness of purpose comes the feeling of responsibility and involvement. The participants will approach the process with a sense of duty.
Also, people get more clarity. They think in terms of your goal. All of these make the process better.
“Content informs design.
Design without content is just decoration”
In short, if your IA is not good, so will be your product.
Card sorting contributes to your effort of putting out content in the best way. However, this is not enough. You will need some other user research techniques before you structure your IA.
But the essence you get from card sorting can affect the overall flavor of the design. Make sure you cook it right.
If conducting card sort needs such nuances, think of the post insight extraction. You have to be even more attentive and unbiased during the data analysis. Deriving out the right conclusion from the data is crucial. If not, the whole process of card sorting becomes pointless.
UX is all about understanding the user behavior and making your product relatable. And card sort is your first step towards that. Take note of these points, maybe prepare a checklist. You cannot go wrong here!