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Card Sorting your way to Information Architecture

When you are faced with a major intranet or internet site development project, information architecture is a critical starting point. However, getting started with information architecture isn’t necessarily that easy. There is the enormity of information held in an enterprise. Whether you believe in taxonomy  (a defined classification scheme) or folksonomy  (where users tag their own content) or somewhere in between, you can use a card sorting exercise to get you started.

Card sorting involves:

  1. Creating a list of up to 110 topic areas written on 3×5 cards
  2. Assembling a minimum of 2 groups of people from the organization in question who will be your “information customers”. 6 to 8 is a good number of people in the group to get plenty of interaction and not have one person dominate discussions. Participants in each group must be from a variety of business units within the organization and a range of levels from junior to senior. Aim to not have more than a one person from a single business unit.
  3. Getting going on the sorting exercise – developing main headings and then adding cards to each heading

The aim of the exercise is to understand different perspectives on how to classify the information. so you need two card sorting team rules:

  1. Every person’s point of view is valid
  2. Anyone can shift any card
  3. Every card placed or shifted should contribute to a wider understanding
  4. The team decides collectively as they finish the task
  5. Participants can create new cards for additional topics they deem important
  6. When a group of cards that go together is formed, a yellow post it note and group title is added

Allow 30-40 minutes for this exercise, then break for coffee. Each group then checks out how other groups have assembled their cards. This leads to further insight which allows you to complete the process.

I do like the tactile nature of card sorting. Every participant can grab a card, write their own cards, and physically move them around – they are physically involved.

However once complete, the content topics need to be typed up and information hierarchy map created.

Online Tools For Card Sorting Exercises.

Optimal Sort

Cardsorting tool Optimalsort screencapture


Websort Screenshot

If you are interested in knowing more about card sorting see Donna Spencer’s Card Sorting: A Definitive Guide

5 thoughts on “Card Sorting your way to Information Architecture

  1. Just thought I should point out that the screenshot you show of WebSort is actually of the old version. A new version was launched in September of this year with a totally revamped Study Manager and participant interface. Feel free to take a look around and kick the tires – it definitely has a different feel to it now.

  2. I’ve had a few projects where I suspected card sorting would have been useful. But not having done one myself, I’ve been on the look out for a good guide. An example would be great, helps put the abstract ideas into context.

  3. Here I am, reading your Blog via a virtual version of Firefox which is running on a GOPC client/browser in my iBook which is running X11 (where am I??) and all I can think about is “where can I get my hands on some of those old 80-column cards that we used to use?” Hell, we even punched holes in them cards – so we could sort them. What a concept.

  4. Hi Les, my first experience with computing was with a Tandy TRS80 keypunching records into Visicalc onto 8.5 inch disks and where a disk drive was bigger than 2 microwave ovens. Not quite as good as the 80 column cards… but I’m sure due to make a comeback!

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