information architecture · UCD process

International Card Sorting – an overview and some initial questions

Sample Card Sort
Image Attribution: card sorting exercise borrowed from the Card Sorting, A Definitive Guide by Todd Warfel & Donna Maurer

Today we take a little adventure in the land of card sorting.

Anyone who’s been doing IA for long (or even studying it) would have come across the card sort. Its one of the simplest and most frequently applied exercises in organising content into structure. It can be really helpful and help to ensure that you’re taking a user centric approach to the information design of the site.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a project which has number of specific international audiences. I have card sorting on my agenda in the pretty near future. What I’d like to do here is take a look at:

a) when is card sorting useful and what should it be used for?
b) are there tools and methods that I can use to do card sorting all over the world without having to pay a whole bunch of usability consultants crazy amounts of money to faciliate?

Lets start with the basics.

What is card sorting?

Our friends at Information & Design say:

Card Sorting is a technique for exploring how people group items, so that you can develop structures that maximize the probability of users being able to find items.

Its a user centrered method that can be very helpful in understanding the mental models of your users and how those models can impact on the way you organise and name your content and functionality.

How to do card sorting

James Robertson has the simplest description of card sorting I could find so I’m going to use it here:

  1. Write down each topic on a filing (index) card.
  2. Give the pile of cards to a number of users and ask them to group the cards into piles.
  3. Collate the results, and make use of them when completing the information design.

Easy Peasy.

(he follows this with a much more detailed set of instructions that you can find here).

There is also the Definitive Guide over at Boxes and Arrows which is a great resource.

Advantages of Card Sorting

Card sorting has a number of advantages. The most obvious one being that it is, comparatively, inexpensive and can be done quite quickly. Research has shown that you don’t need to test with very many people before you have reliable results from card sorting. (Jakob recommends testing 15 people).
Another key advantage is that it involves your users actually acting not answering. There is abundant research to show (and many will know from experience) that what users say they want and how they say they will act is often completely different to what actually occurs. Card sorting makes users put their money where their mouth is… well, kind of.

In their ‘Definitive Guide‘ Todd Warfel and Donna Maurer list a range of other questions that card sorting can help to answer, including:

  • Do the users want to see the information grouped by subject, process, business group, or information type?
  • How similar are the needs of the different user groups?>
  • How different are their needs?
  • How many potential main categories are there? (typically relates to navigation)
  • What should those groups be called?

Its a widely established and well accepted activity for information architects….

As Donna Maurer vented this very morning, there is more to IA than card sorting. There are a range of other inputs that need to be considered when you’re developing an your information architecture.

Whilst the users ideas around grouping and naming content are definitely important, so to are the business requirements of your client. The technical platform that you’re deploying to may have a big influence on your architecture, as will forecasting the future content and technical requirements and attempting to account for those, then there may be existing design or content guidelines to adhere to… and, sometimes most importantly, your work may need to support a creative campaign much bigger than the site you’re architecting!

Also, as Jakob points out, the groupings that form the output of the card sorting exercise are only one part of the information you can gain from card sorting exercises. He says:

… I don’t recommend designing an information architecture based purely on a card sort’s numeric similarity scores. When deciding specifics of what goes where, you should rely just as much on the qualitative insights you gain in the testing sessions. Much of the value from card sorting comes from listening to the users’ comments as they sort the cards: knowing why people place certain cards together gives deeper insight into their mental models than the pure fact that they sorted cards into the same pile.

Card sorting is but one aspect of information architecture. As Rashmi Sinha says:

always remember that good user research does not reduce the need for good design. Card-sorting only tells you how users think and gives you some possible structural solutions. Design – that is still yours to do badly or to do well!

When is card sorting a good approach?

Card sorting is a good approach when you have defined the range of content/functionality for your project, and are seeking to:

  • define or test the structure (eg. sitemap)
  • test and validate the naming/terminology you have used.
  • understanding how your audience will group content or tasks together, thereby what kind of grouping will make sense to them. This will help you to work out an appropriate structure for your website/application/whatever you are designing;
  • identifying any terminology that is unclear or not understood by your audience;
  • identifying content/task is difficult to classify into a single group, or a group that is difficult to name/describe clearly;

Generative or Evolutionary? Closed or Open?

When talking about card sorting, it is frequently being described as an evolutionary tool that is applied right at the outset of the design phase, meaning that users are central to drive the structural design of the site. In my experience, this is very rarely the case, and other aspects of the project, especially business requirements and creative strategy means that much of the structure is sketched out before the users become involved. The card sort is then done to test that the draft structure is efficient and highly usable for the audience and to ensure that it supports them in a range of key tasks (that have been defined and prioritised in order for the initial structure to be drafted). There is not a great deal of work involved in preparing for a card sort (unless you’re doing it in 6 different languages… then you need to allow time for translations!). A basic checklist might look like:

  • Define the list of items that you need to categorise
  • Try to ensure that each term is as clear as possible.
  • Make sure the cards are presented to each participant in random order (you might need to give them a shuffle between sessions!)
  • Recruit a group of participants who are representative of your target audience (or, preferably, actual end users, if possible).
  • Ensure the participants have a large table and plenty of space.
  • Make sure all participants get the same instructions, then leave them be. You need to make sure that they feel as though they have plenty of time and no pressure to finish their sorting, but you can also benefit from observing their process and seeing what they have trouble with and the processes they work through.
  • Leave some blank cards and post it notes with the participants so they can add new terms and also make any relevant notes as they go.
  • Photograph each card sort when its done and post it on your project wiki/blog (eh, you don’t really need to do that part, but its kind of fun).

There’s some debate around whether you should do card sorting in groups or individually. Personally, I’ve found that card sorting with end users is most effective individually, but I have also had success going through a similar process with a group of managers (from my clients) and having them go through the exercise together and start to think about things from a user perspective (this is often more educational than instructional for me… but has been worthwhile).

An International Card Sorting Exercise

Consider the situation where you have to undertake card sorting exercises around the world – Australia, China, Japan, Korea, US, UK, Germany for example. If you have a site with a global focus, then this is an important exercise. Its important to ensure that the terminology you are using in English works not only in your language and your culture, but translates appropriately internationally – or, if it doesn’t, that appropriate local terminology is identified.

But, the time and cost associated with such an exercise is prohibitive.

As much as I’d like to hop on a plane and go from place to place with translators in tow and faciliate these exercises myself, this is neither the most efficient nor effective approach. But how to ensure that the testing is applied consistently throughout the regions and that the outputted reporting is similarly consistent so that a proper evaluation can be made?

I would like to think that electronic tools could be used to achieve this, and as such I’ve started (and only just started!) to evaluate the current range of tools available. I’m not really in a position at this point to make much comment on their ability to faciliate a multi-lingual and cross cultural card sorting exercise… I’m not sure whether any of them even support double byte characters, for a start, which will be necessary in the Asian markets.

Even with the appropriate electronic tools to guide faciliatation and ensure consistent reporting, its unlikely that it would be possible to achieve effective results without engaging a consultant locally to recruit and be the ‘helpdesk’ throughout the exercise.

I have heard of people using tools such as Macromedia Breeze to facilitate wireframe validation… would this perhaps be an option for a card sorting exercise? (with translators on hand, of course!)

This is an area I’ll be investigating more in the coming weeks. I’d appreciate any experience, insight and ideas that you might have…

Some Useful References:

Information & Design: What is card sorting?

The Information Architecture Institute – Card Sorting References

IA Slash Card Sorting Resources

Rashmi Sinha – Theory & practice of card sorting

Rashmi Sinha – Should you finalise site structure based on card sorting?

Mark Boulton card sorting part 1, part 2 (facilitation), part 3 (analysis and reporting)

Donna Maurer – Card sorting tools, Final Summary

Gerry McGovern – Using card sorting for web classification design

UsabilityNet’s overview of card sorting theory & practice
Jakob Nielson – Card sorting to discover the users’ model of the information space

Jakob Nielson – Card sorting – how many users to test?

UI Designer – Questions on card sorting effectiveness

Boxes & Arrows – Card sorting, A definitive guide

Boxes & Arrows – Analyzing Card Sort Results with a Spreadsheet Template

Step Two – Information Design using card sorting

Dey Alexander has a much more extensive list of links that I do

IA Wiki also have a great collection of card sorting links

Electronic Card Sorting Tools


Websort – Web Based Card Sorting


Card Sword

Card Zort

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4 thoughts on “International Card Sorting – an overview and some initial questions

  1. If you have some sort of connection with international users, you could always go the even easier way and do individual sorts by posting the cards out and getting people to bundle them up send them back. Wouldn’t work with the general public, but could work if you have a set of committed clients.

    I’ve done this across Australia and it worked out well.

  2. That’s a nice idea Donna. I hadn’t thought of that approach.

    Unfortunately, its not going to be a solution for this project, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the future.

    When you do card sorting this way, do you also provide some kind of mechanism for people to provide you with more ‘qualitative’ feedback on your cards and the structuring they’ve done?

  3. here’s something else interesting… I’ve seen some costings come back from Japan and China and they’re about twice the price of an identical testing schedule in Sydney.

    I found that pretty surprising. For some reason I had expected testing in Asia to be cheaper than in Sydney.

  4. Having read through some very useful examples and excellent explanations of card sorting…would i be right in thinking that card sorting may not be so useful to use in relation to help? (in particular, context sensitive help)

    Any thoughts greatly welcomed

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