Raising the Usability Ante with Card Sorting


If your company has a website, you've probably heard the “Usability” buzzword (your site's ease of use) thrown around a lot with the popularity of user-center design – with studies showing its direct correlation to increased ROI.

The objective of any website is to facilitate marketing conversions, whether it's making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, or lead generation via email/web form (to name a few). In order for your target audience to complete these conversions, it’s imperative that your website is easy to navigate – allowing users to find the information they are seeking without hitting any walls that could lead to frustration and eventually higher bounce rates. Enter Information Architecture (IA). Developing a well-structured IA for your website is just one way to improve and ensure usability (and your bottom line). Information architecture (IA) pertains to the organization of the content that lives on your website; good IA leads to better usability and ultimately, better returns.

So, how can you help your users find what they are looking for? You might start by testing with Card Sorting, a technique that aims to improve IA and increase usability by asking users to group and categorize the content on your site in a way that makes sense to them.

Card Sorting is pretty much what the name suggests. You’ll start by listing the content on your site onto index cards (if you're conducting the exercise in person). For example, the cards for a fashion retailer might include: high heels, skinny jeans, wallets, etc. You will then recruit participants to group these cards into pre-determined categories (Closed Card Sorting), have them label their own content groups (Open Card Sorting), or a combination of the two (Hybrid Card Sorting). The categories for our fictional fashion retailer might be: shoes, clothing, and accessories, for example. Once participants complete the Card Sorting exercise, your team will then be able to review the results and identify any organizational patterns in order to restructure your site’s IA as needed.

Try not to overwhelm your participants by including every piece of content on your site – this might lead to fatigue and end up negatively affecting your results. If you have a large website, a general rule of thumb would be to limit your cards to 50 total – include different levels of content and randomize the order of when the participants see the cards.

It might seem ideal to conduct the exercise in person in order to clarify confusion and witness any user frustrations firsthand, but this is not always possible. Remote Card Sorting allows for participation regardless of geographic location, casting a wider net for greater insight. Conducting testing remotely will also reduce the liklihood of your team influencing the results or categorizations in anyway – even if it is unintentional. 

If you are looking for a free online Card Sorting tool, you might consider using Trello. However, you will have to analyze the results manually, which can be cumbersome and time consuming. Optimal Sort is another popular (paid) online tool with the major added benefit of data analysis and visualization.

In order to streamline remote Card Sorting, remember to include specific instructions when sending the exercise link to your participants. Involving a large number of participants (at least 30) will help your team to recognize organizational trends. When possible, try to engage as many people who would be likely end users of your site (as well as any internal stakeholders). For example, if you're testing for a Higher Education Institution, you might consider reaching out to students, prospective students and their families, alumni, donors, faculty, and staff.

Card Sorting alone won’t solve all of your usability issues, but it’s a great start. Stay posted for more articles on our blog about user experience and tips on elevating usability! And, if you’d like a website redesign quote, contact us today at: info@function1.com.

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