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When is card sorting useful

I have always thought that open card sorting is a great thing. With this technique, you give end users a set of content written on index cards, and ask them to group it in ways that make sense for them in context of the application.

I’ve had great successes in the past, and I use the technique in training courses.

However, I have been running a card sort over the last few days, and am not as confident that the outcomes will be useful.

I realised today what has happened. In the past, and on training courses, I have done the exercise on either smallish groups of content (where up to 80 cards represent all content), or on large groups of content that already have some type of pattern (for example, large content but of a limited range of content types).

In my current exercise, I’m trying to sort a large amount of content, and it is incredibly varied. Because it is so varied (and I’m not a user of the information), I didn’t want to pre-group much of it. My participants have a very daunting task of trying to group individual pieces of very varied content. No wonder they are telling me it is hard (luckily they understand much of the content fairly well).

I suspect that open card sorting is most useful when:
1. The content set is reasonably small; and/or
2. The content already has patterns that allow some pre-grouping
3. The participants understand the content well.

I will get some useful information out of the process, but nowhere near enough to create a reliable navigation structure…

3 Responses to “When is card sorting useful”

  1. dkr Says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing with card sorting exercises. I work for a hospital, so you can understand the vast amount of varied content we deal with on our Intranet.

    We did a card sorting exercise with our review board (yeah they are a pain) and some other users and found that while there was some information to be gleaned, the sheer scope of the exercise was way to large and it made it very difficult for people to get their mind around. Not to mention all the issuse of perspecitve.

    Administrative staff had a hard time with clinical stuff, etc. Anyway – I think next time we might do several concentrated exercises rather than one large one.

    It’s a learning process for everyone.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Try a closed sort and see how the results compare. I just did a set of open and closed sorts on a biggish set of info. In doing the open sort, our results were all over the place. In the closed sort, almost all users results were very similar, and suggested that the roughed-out categories that were temporarily in place were actually good enough to use as permanent ones, given we got some other time benefits by not redesigning the global navigation.

  3. Donna Maurer Says:

    Good suggestions. I needed to do the open sort to get an idea of the categories. Now I have a rough idea, I’m going to do some testing to see how well the hierarchy works…