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Card sorting for user journey analysis and information architecture design

Recently I’ve been using a card sorting tool, part of the Optimal Workshop toolbox, to analyse a set of user journeys. The card sorting tool is also useful for designing an information architecture for a website or documentation set. This post describes how I used the card sorting tool, because it may be useful to other tech writers and information designers. (I’m not affiliated with Optimal Workshop, nor have they asked me to write this post.)

I’m working with a team to design a tool for gathering and presenting documentation metrics. As a first step, we want to know what type of metrics people will find useful, and how they’d like to use those metrics. We decided to start by gathering user journeys. For us in this context, a user journey is a goal that someone wants to meet by following a set of tasks.

After gathering the user journeys, we needed a way to analyse and collate them. Optimal Workshop‘s card sorting tool came in useful here. This post describes how.

Note: The examples in this post come from Optimal Workshop’s demo application. (They’re not from the actual interviews and user journeys that my team is working with.)

This screenshot shows an example of a card sort, from Optimal Workshop’s demo application:

In the above example, participants in the card sorting exercise can move the cards from the column on the left into the work area on the right. When moving a card, participants can choose to put a card into an existing group, such as “Buying a cell phone”. Or they can create a new group and give it a name.

Context around what I needed to do

My team’s goal was to understand a large set of user journeys that we had collected for a yet-to-be-designed system. Before using the card sorting tool, my team had done the following work:

  1. Interviewed prospective users of the proposed system, asking them a set of open-ended questions about why and how they would use the system.
  2. Made notes during the user interviews, using a standard template to ensure that each interviewer captured the same sort of information from each interviewee.
  3. Distilled the notes from each interview into one or more user journeys. A user journey encapsulates a single goal expressed by the user. It may take one or more tasks to achieve that goal, but at this point the goal was the important thing.
  4. Collected all the user journeys into a single repository. In our case, we used a spreadsheet.

After doing all that, we had a large collection of user journeys — too many to work with in the next phase of the project, which is to prioritize the use cases, define requirements for the use cases that we want to tackle first, and design a minimum viable product. Some of the user journeys were duplicates. Some user journeys represented subsets of others. Some user journeys expressed a similar goal, but from a different perspective.

We needed some way of analysing and collating our user journeys. Enter the card sorting exercise!

What is card sorting?

Card sorting is an exercise that you can use to see how your customers think about a certain subject area or product. You give people a set of cards, each representing an activity, task, topic, or concept, and you ask them to group (sort) those cards into categories.

I’m using the word customers in a broad sense. The participants of a card sorting exercise can be customers, users of a product, readers of a website, members of a design team, and so on.

As the creator of a card sorting exercise, you can choose whether to give your customers preordained categories (a closed card sort) or to let the participants make up their own categories (an open card sort).

By examining the groupings made by the participants, you get useful insights into the way people think about your subject area or product.

In the past, I’ve participated in card sorting exercises where we used real cards made out of paper or cardboard. Sometimes the cards were Post-it notes. We’d write the topics, tasks, or concepts on the cards and place them on a table or stick them on a whiteboard. Then we’d shuffle the cards into groups, using the exercise as a way of exploring concepts and designs.

It’s quite common to use electronic cards instead of paper ones. That’s what we did for the user journey analysis that I’m describing in this post, using Optimal Workshop.

How we used card sorting to analyse our collected user journeys

We decided it’d be useful for each member of our team to analyse the user journeys individually as a first step. That’d give each of us the freedom to look for patterns and understand the users’ goals, without being influenced by other members of the team. After that, we wanted to analyse and collate our findings.

I loaded all the user journeys from the spreadsheet into Optimal Workshop’s card sorting tool. I created an open card sort, so that each person could make up their own groupings of user journeys. Then each team member spent a couple of hours sorting and grouping the user journeys. You can see what this looks like by trying Optimal Workshop’s demo app, using the participant view.

The next step was to examine what we came up with. Optimal Workshop offers some useful tools in the Analysis tab of the Results section. To try it out, see the results view of their demo app.

In particular, I found the 3D cluster view interesting and useful. Here’s a screenshot from the Optimal Workshop demo:

The tool analyses the categories created by the participants, and further groups the categories into clusters. This is particularly useful in an open card sort, where participants have created their own categories. It gives you a way of finding similar categories.

The next screenshot shows the details of one particular cluster, listing first the categories in the cluster, and then the cards in those categories:

We used the sets of “similar category labels” offered by the tool as a starting point to help us combine and reduce the number of user journeys in our collection.

Card sorting for information architecture design

In the situation that I described above, we used card sorting to analyse user journeys. Card sorting is useful in other situations, one of which is designing the information architecture (IA) of a website or a documentation set.

The IA usage is closer to what Optimal workshop’s demo application shows. In case you skipped past the section of this post about user journeys, here are the links again:

  • You can try out Optimal Workshop’s demo as a participant in the exercise, using the participant view.
  • Or you can try it out as the analyst or designer viewing the results of the card sorting exercise, using the results view.

Card sorting is also useful for the members of a team designing the website. Instead of having users do the card sorting exercise, you can have your team do it. This gives each person the freedom to draft designs in peace, play with concepts, and experiment with new groupings. Once everyone has finished, you can get together to see the differences and similarities in the way you’re thinking about the design.

Trying out Optimal Workshop

You can use Optimal Workshop for free to try it out. See the various options on their pricing page, including “try for free”.

More tips about card sorting or other UX tools?

If you’ve used a UX tool as part of your role as technical writer or information designer, I’d love to hear about it.

Empathy in UX design and development

A new theme is emerging in the UX (user experience) world: Empathy. Putting humanity into technology. Product designers want to ensure they have empathy with the users of their product. We in the tech world want to design for what people need and want, rather than for what’s new and shiny. I think technical writers can contribute to this discussion!

Last month I attended Web Directions South 2014, a conference for people who “design, imagine, create or build digital products, web sites and applications”. A strong theme emerged at the conference: Empathy, what it means to be human in a digital world, creating an internet for humans… What’s more, this was a spontaneous emergence, not suggested by the conference organisers. It just happened.

My deduction was that this must be a “thing” in the world of web design and development at the moment, whether conscious or unconscious, whether generally known or just beginning to seep into our collective consciousness.

I’m wondering: how many other people have encountered this theme?

Since then, I’ve read a post by Georgina Laidlaw, entitled “Why Don’t You Have a Writer in Your UX Team?” (linked at the end of this post). Georgina was recently at the UX Australia Redux conference in Melbourne, where she noticed a “dearth of writers”. She follows that observation with an excellent and exciting description of the contributions a technical writer can make to a UX team: “five things a great writer knows better than anyone else in the room”. I’ll resist simply listing the five bullet points, because such a bald list wouldn’t do justice to Georgina’s post.

Georgina’s third point struck a chord: “Writers understand empathy“. She says,

Writers deal with emotion all the time. Even the writer of the blender manual is working to avoid frustrating or patronizing you, and to make things seem achievable so that you feel an affinity for the product you’ve bought.

Every professionally written item aims to communicate, and to do that, the writer needs to deal with emotion. They’re skilled at empathising with the target audience — the users of their words — whether that’s on a single-word basis, or a thousand-word basis.

I’d add these points: As technical writers, we focus on analysing our audience, thinking about how our customers work, what they want, and what they need. We get to see early version of the product we’re documenting, whether that be an app, an API, a piece of hardware, or another type of product. We exercise the product as a user would, in order to document its usage. Many of us interact with customers, via feedback on the docs, in forums, or in other ways. We see a different set of customers from those the product managers and marketing/sales teams focus on: we see and think about the “end users” (for want of a better term).

We can chat to the engineers, designers and product managers we work with, to share our insights. We can make ourselves known early in the design phase of a product, again to share our insights and also to expand our own knowledge of the product aims.

So, yes to Georgina and other UX specialists: let’s talk. 🙂

Here’s a link to Georgina Laidlaw’s post on SitePoint: Why Don’t You Have a Writer in Your UX Team? It’s well worth a read.

These links point to my notes on the four key-note presentations at Web Directions South: InterconnectedAn Internet for Humans too, Being Human in a Digital World, A Voice for Everyone.

A pic from me, for fun:

Empathy in UX design and development

ASTC-NSW day 1: Software usability – some second thoughts

This week I’m attending the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Jon Jermey. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Jon. Any mistakes are mine.

Jon Jermey gave a presentation titled “Software usability: some second thoughts”. After years of experience in the software industry, Jon has come up with the idea that “usability” is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Brave man, to stand up and say something like that when the “U” is so much the trending topic. At first, I didn’t agree with Jonathan. But as I listened to him speak, I grew more and more interested in his perspectives. There were some contradictions in what he said. But then, perhaps that was the point. His presentation was a great collection of “second thoughts”, to get us thinking.

Jon pointed out that there are imperatives that trump the usability imperative. He gave some examples of “products” that may not pass the usual usability tests, but are still worth pursuing. For example, things that advanced civilisation, such as fire. Or a military product that you need to have, because your enemies already have it.

The superficial usability aspects are not the whole story. Jon compared Windows 7 and Linux. Linux command-line instructions at first appear horrible. But there are many great usability aspects, not least of which is the fact that by and large they do not change over time, as the more UI-focused products do.

Jon thinks that the current usability trends are an example of, well, not exactly “group think”, but a number of people all thinking along the same lines. There are very few dissenters.

The problems with the trend towards usability

Jon listed some problems with the current thinking around usability.

Usability is conservative. We find out what most people are doing already and stick with it. For example, the QWERTY keyboard (designed to stop people typing too fast); the traditional spreadsheet. I disagree with Jon here. There’s a lot of experimentation and new design coming out of usability professionals right now. For example, the iPad and various UI designs I have seen floating around that have not yet hit the production lines.

Jon gave an example of usability in action: eReaders. He posed the question, what exactly are they and what should they do for us? He pointed out that there all sorts of different formats of eReaders out there. I think this is an example contradicts Jon’s thesis. The early prototypes have been improved, based on usability design.

Problems are foisted on the designers rather than the users. Usability tends to be made the problem of the software designer, even though the designer has no contact with the users and no idea what the users need. Jon says it seems to be unfair to shift the responsibility to the designer, when the user actually has a lot of power too. The result is that the designer often restricts what the user can do, to prevent problems. Instead, problems can often be solved by the user, if they are willing to learn a few simple things, change their behaviour and fix the problem themselves.

Price and language. Jon posed these questions: Is price a usability consideration, and if not why not? Which is more usable, a product that costs a lot or a product that is cheap? Which is a better solution: Simplify the English version of your product, or translate it into French, Indonesian and Chinese?

What about having no words at all, such as on the first screen of the OLPC machine – using just images. Is this a usability win or failure?

Marketing versus usability. Jon asks, is the distinction always clear? What about the law of diminishing returns: Every new version of a piece of software is less of an improvement on the version before, and costs more and more to develop.

Dealing with failure. Jon put up a slide showing the differences between how the commercial world and the non-commercial world deal with failure. The commercial world blames the designer and tries to sell the user an upgrade, whereas the non-commercial (Linux) world asks the user about the problem, warns everyone else, asks the user how to fix it and suggests and alternative product. I disagreed with the import of this slide, because I think the division into commercial and non-commercial is too uncompromising.

Pressure groups and politics. Jon gave the example of the deprecation of frames. Why did the whole world shift, and why was the onus put on the website designers to change, rather than on the browsers to handle frames better?

Some suggestions from Jon

What if all software was like games? Games are designed to be difficult. Jon made the interesting observiation that people like their recreation to be difficult, but their work to be easy. In games, you learn or you leave (die). Is there a way to take some of that gaming motivation and apply it to software, websites, even documents?

Jon says yes. It’s about recognising that people learn and their skills grow over time. In the same way, software could grow over time with add-ons and feature packs.

Do we in the software industry need to re-think our approach? For example, we could have a director’s cut of our product (borrowing from the film industry). Or looking at the car industry: Take a simple version of the product and invest it with glamour.

Providing personalised products. Companies are providing customers with personalised products: Books, music, films, computer games. But software is generalised. Why is that? Is it that the software industry is going backwards? Looking at Linux, there are 50 to 60 different flavours to choose from. This fragmented hobbyist approach is driving the fast development of Linux to develop. Why is this not so in the commercial products?

Can we capture that exploratory approach and put it to work?

Possibly usability considerations are slowing down the development of our products. Jon’s impression at the moment is that all software products are the same. There are a lot of good things about standardisation, but can’t we set a higher goal and allow people to customise their software products. Put the glamour back into software.

My conclusion

This talk gave me a lot to think about. A new way of looking at our current approach to usability! It’s a brave man who can stand up in this day and age and go against the UX stream. Thank you Jon!

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