For any information professional worth their salt, card sorting is an excellent technique to involve system users in the re-design and re-organisation of a website or database system.
Conducting a card-sorting exercise involves:
- Careful pre-planning including a clear method and system of recording results.
- Thought and planning into who is invited to undertake exercise and whether to conduct. individually or in a group format.
- Clear instructions for participants.
- Potential Reward for participants.
- How to disseminate results.
- Analysis and making an ultimate decision based on feedback.
In conducting card sorting exercises for the particular project I am working on, I have used open card sorts with a group. I try if possible to get 2 groups to do the exercise simultaneously so that there is the opportunity to compare results at the end. I've also used a web-based sorting tool for some of the sorts for the first time, which was out of necessity and not my first choice, as I think it is preferrable to be in the room and observe and listen to participants. Having said that, the web sort is flexible in allowing people to participate who I might not otherwise have had access to.
Pros and Cons of card sorting
From my experience, card sorting is a deceptively simple technique but as with anything in a real world situation, it is open to interpretation and there is plenty to learn from the exercise.
At worst card sorting can be biased. The initial labels you produce or your description of the session can be misleading. You can also read too much into the statistics.
Unless you are a fulltime information architectural, usability or website design firm or consultant, I think that personally, even if you have put everything into place with a validated method of conducting, recording and analysing the sort, it is difficult to draw too much out of card sorting. Maybe that is a good thing. Card sorting is at best a method of reassuring your thinking.
It is powerful because it is structured and involves users. As one of the participants who recently took part in one of the exercises said to me, he wished he had known about this technique during a previous project, since it would have avoided many arguments.
Card sorting, it should be remembered is not the only technique available and it best used alongside other techniques depending on the nature of the project.