1. Alex, this is an excellent article. I agree with every point and recommendation you make here. I would only add that your sage advice is just as applicable to other kinds of web sites as it is to intranets. Well done!

  2. Fred Beecher

    Hi Alex. I think it’s great to look at the pros and cons of these two types of sorts, but I think one distinction hasn’t been made clear, the distinction between moderated and unmoderated sorts.

    Where I work, the most common type of card sorting we do is *moderated* online sorting, and for us it offers the best of both worlds. We get all the qualitative goodness of a physical sort, reduce the abstraction of unmoderated online sorts, and the analysis benefits of an online sort. Your article doesn’t state it outright, but it seems you’re focused on *unmoderated* online sorts. We do use those too, but only to extend the reach of our research as you recommend in the article.

  3. Alex

    Hi Fred, you’re right, I have not focused on that distinction here. It’s a good point but I will need convincing by you that moderated online sorts are worth doing! I actually began writing this article after a session of moderated online sorts that I was particularly unhappy with. I think the points above apply in terms of guidelines for moderated or unmoderated online sorts as the computer screen really is not conducive to large-scale, long sessions, even on bigger screens.

    A question for you: do you run them as one-on-one sessions or multiple users? I wonder how the latter would work but can foresee some problems.

  4. We always run them one-on-one. Mostly we work on business-critical Web applications, so we’re often sorting tasks rather than informational content (e.g., “Update Address”). This typically keeps the number of cards down, so maybe that’s why we seem to have had more success with moderated online sorts.

    I can see how this would be more unwieldy with a larger sort, like for an intranet. A method that might help with that might be to conduct a delphi sort, in which a knowledgeable user or stakeholder takes a first stab at organizing the content and then card sort participants “fix” the organization until it seems right to them. When very few cards move around, that’s when you know the sort is done. It’s pretty slick because it validates the sort at the same time you’re conducting it.

  5. The focus on tasks… as much as the Delphi method is valid, i’m inclined to use tree testing as a way to test the suitability of a structure. Asking users to ‘fix’ seems a little arbitrary?

  6. I was probably condensing the language too much there. : ) Yes, tree testing & reverse card sorts are best for validating an existing structure. But the delphi method is for *creating* the structure, not validating it. The idea is that each user evaluates and improves upon the structure created by the previous user. Once users stop moving cards around (or only move a few of the same cards around consistently), you know with a reasonable amount of certainty that you’ve got a structure that will work. I’d still reverse card sort whatever came out of the post-sort analysis, though.

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Published August 29, 2011

Alex Manchester
Alex Manchester is an alumni of Step Two Designs. He specialises in intranet and enterprise social network research strategy and user experience design. Alex works with a wide range of public and private sector organisations and has over eight years experience in this field.

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