As web designers and information architects will tell you, web site content can be organized in many ways. Ideally, the organization of topics on a site should follow a pattern that makes sense to the site's target audience. Card sorting is a research technique that is geared towards helping the process of designing a new web site or evaluating the design of an existing site.
What is it?
A card sorting exercise involves research participants, who represent your target audience, sorting and organizing cards into groups of subject areas or topics as it makes sense. For this exercise, a list of approximately fifty topics are made to represent the planned or potential content of your website. Cue cards are taken and one topic is written on each card. Each participant is asked to organize the cue cards into groups of topics that seem to fit in with each other.
Card sorting can be of two types-open and closed card sorting. In open card sorting, groups of topics are not named. The participants have to organize the cards into groups and name the groups as well. In closed card sorting, the groups of topics are named and the respondents have to place each cue card into one of the subject areas.
When can it be used?
Card sorting can be used before designing a new website, to build a basic prototype that forms the framework of the new design. It can also be used to test a website prototype that has already been built. In this case, the feedback received from the card sorting exercise helps to revise the prototype as required and then proceed with website design process.
Just like in the case of designing a new web site, card sorting can also be used when an existing website is expanded and a new section has to be designed. A card sorting exercise may even be useful when an existing website is being revamped and the overall content organization of the site needs to be tested.
Key advantage and disadvantages
Key advantages of card sorting are that it is inexpensive, easy to organize and relatively simple when compared to other research techniques. This is because a list of topics and cue cards are the main resources required for card sorting.
Since card sorting is done in an experimental setting, participants group the website content without any associated task in mind and this can be a disadvantage. Without any context, the chosen topics or groupings may not exactly fit with the way the site is used for a given task. Time consuming analysis can be another disadvantage if the data varies a lot - across consumer segments, for example.
Yet, a card sort is almost always useful before designing a site. Even if it does not pave the entire map out clearly, the exercise forwards certain pointers that are crucial in creating an effective sitemap. So before you design the site, take a moment to ask yourself whether you have all the information that you need to organize the content. If not, then it is time to take those cards out and organize a card sorting exercise.