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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.

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