Card Sorting and Information Architecture

Low-tech card sorting exercises are still valuable in creating the most effective information architecture.

Perhaps the most critical piece of any web site is the navigation menu. If the information your customers are looking for is on the home page or one of the landing pages and is communicated in a few short seconds your navigation doesn’t matter to them, but if it’s not, the customer has to hunt for it in the navigation menu.

If your customer gets lost in that menu structure, you have a great likelihood of losing them. Often navigation structures are chosen by a single person and it may make perfect sense to that individual why they have chosen the navigation terms or sub navigation structure. But that may not make sense to the vast majority of your customers. For example, I conducted a test on the navigation menu for a global manufacturing company that had “shop” as the top menu item that lead to a list of the product categories the company made, for example, shop > cameras. There was another menu item called “discover” that lead to glossy content for a few featured products. When we changed “shop” to “shop products” we saw a 54% increase in interactions with that menu item and a 35% decrease in interactions with “discover.” So, clearly people were confused.

To determine the best navigation terms and information architecture you can use a method called card sorting. Write down all the navigation terms your site uses onto index cards. Then, hand those cards to a person unfamiliar with the web site and have them order the cards on a table or pin board in the manner they think is most logical. Repeat this process with a dozen or so people to find patterns in how an audience would think about navigation item groupings. You can also give the subjects alternative top category names and see which ones are picked most frequently. To draw on the “shop” vs. “shop products” example mentioned earlier you could add other alternatives such as “products” and “see products” and ask your card sorting test subjects to pick the one they think makes the most sense.