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Blueprints for the Web: Organization for the Masses

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  1. How to Do a Card Sort
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Christina Wodtke shows you how to assure a usable web site organization by doing a simple card sort, a useful exercise to organize your contents into categories for easy browsing. She also reveals how to invite potential users of the web site to participate in the design, thus assuring the web site creator of a usable organization system.
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It's a human tendency to organize items to make retrieval easier. Look around your house:

  • You've got a sock drawer, an underwear drawer, and a t-shirt area to promote easy retrieval of clothes as you get dressed.

  • You have a silverware organizer to separate spoons from forks to facilitate ease of table setting.

  • You alphabetize your CD collection in a CD rack so that you can quickly find the band you're looking for.

It's a simple fact that when you have a certain amount of stuff, you have to organize it. Otherwise, you can't find anything.

It's the same in the digital world. If you want people to be able to find what they are looking for on your web site, you must organize the contents based on how people think about those contents. The organization of a clothing store should reflect how people think clothing is organized. The labels on the site should reflect the words people use to describe clothes, and the layout of the site should support the way people accomplish the task of shopping. This is true whether you are designing the organization of a technical support site or a music video web site—the site must reflect the reality of its visitors, or it will confuse them.

Human beings who are tall enough to reach a keyboard have lived enough of life to have an idea of how the world is organized. As a designer, you can either ignore this and create a new scheme that may delight or may annoy, or you can learn how people perceive the realm of your contents and use that to be more effective.

There are three good ways to learn how people think about your content:

  • Observe others.—Go to a physical store. Visit a library. Visit your competitors' stores. If video stores, movie books, and other movie sites all have an Action/Adventure category, you can bet people coming to your movie review site will expect to find a section on this.

  • Study the enemy.—Visit your competitors' sites. How do they organize their information? Compare several organization schemes: Where are the similarities? The differences? Try to figure out why they made the choices they did. Is it entropy or insight? You can even run usability testing on their site to discover what parts of their organization work and what parts don't.

  • Visit your search logs.—Suppose you do run a movie review site, and you notice people are searching for Steven Spielberg a lot. You may want to group together all the reviews about him in one place for those diehard fans.

  • Do a card sort.—Do a card sort with some of your potential users.

    Figure 1The video store clerks have organized the films by director: Spielberg, Soderbergh, and Stone.

How to Do a Card Sort

A card sort is a simple exercise in putting like objects together. You can try it right now:

  1. Go get your recipe file. (If you don't have one, you can use your CDs instead or a pile of photographs—anything you have a lot of and you feel comfortable spreading all over your living room floor.)

    Figure 2Your content.

  2. Dump all the recipes out of the box and onto the floor.

  3. Mix them up well, as if you were about to play poker with them.

    Figure 3What a mess—recipes from the back of packages, newspaper clippings, photocopies of my mother's recipes, and even proper recipes on recipe cards.

  4. Now start grouping them. As you see some things that are like others, put them together.

  5. Finally, when you are done, get a few sticky notes, and name each pile. You've now got an organization scheme.

    Figure 4The recipes are starting to fall into place.

Now you've got a scheme you can use, but can anyone else? It's time for user testing. Ask a friend to come over. Don't show him your organization scheme, and have him do the same exercise. (Make sure you shuffle those cards well.) See where his choices are different from yours. Ask him to explain why. Try to learn the logic behind his choices so that you can incorporate it into your design.

Next invite your mom over, your grandmom, and maybe a friend who eats only at restaurants, and ask them to do the same exercise. This can be a bit time consuming, but it's invaluable insight and will save you twice the time redoing your site later.

Now compare. What choices were made? Did one friend organize by course, another by ingredient? Or were they all the same? Were there any special categories, such as Extra Hot or Grandma's Specialties?

You'll learn that people who use recipes differently also organize them differently, as do people of different generations and cultures. To make this exercise as valuable (and swift) as possible, determine who will be using your organization scheme first and do a card sort only with those folks. If you were doing this for a commercial site, you would hire a recruiter to track down people who represent your end user. But for a personal site, grabbing friends and family is quite okay.

Figure 5Figure 1 My recipe collection became a web site about food shared with friends and family, which meant adding new categories to the schema, including restaurant reviews and raptures, in which we sing the praises of a good meal.

Now you need to resolve the results:

  • Look for the dominant organization scheme.—Are most of your categories based on ingredients? Courses? The originating culture? Typically one will emerge.

  • Adjust it for consistency.—Suppose those sticky notes say Breakfast, Appetizers, Italian, Main Course, Side Dishes, Tofu, Drinks, Newspaper Food Section, and Dessert. Of all these items, a dominant theme exists—Courses. Take another look at Italian. Could those items fit under Appetizer, Main Course, or Dessert?

  • Set aside the odd categories that don't match. —Pay very close attention to those odd categories created by more than one person: perhaps mom, grandmom, and you each created an Aunt Sarah category. It's an indicator that there is something special about this item. (Aunt Sarah sure could cook!) You can use this category as featured items on the front page or create unique shortcuts to them. If there is only one oddball, you probably don't want to display it in your main organization scheme. If there are many, you should consider what they could mean for your design.

    Sometimes oddball categories suggest important criteria for how people search for an item. Thinking about the Aunt Sarah categories may lead you to realize that a tried-and-true recipe is an important factor to someone selecting a recipe. You might create a special section for family favorites, or you might keep your category scheme consistent and decide to add a rating system or a feedback area instead. Your categorization scheme doesn't have to do all the work.

Now look over everything.

Do the labels match? Is there more than one piece of content in each bucket? Is one category too big, needing to be divided into subcategories?

When you are done refining, you have what you need—a taxonomy.

A taxonomy is simply a hierarchal organization scheme, and on the web it's very useful for browsing. Epicurious, a commercial site devoted to cooking aficionados, has a taxonomy that looks like this (see Figure 2).

Figure 6Figure 2 Epicurious has more than 14,000 recipes. Good organization is not optional if the site is to be useful.

If you do your work right, no one will ever notice your taxonomy. They'll just glide along effortlessly to the perfect recipe for chicken a la king. Get it wrong and you'll leave your users puzzling, "Is the biscuit recipe in the Yum Yum section or the Melt in Your Mouth department?"

Maybe that's okay when it's just your mom looking for Aunt Sarah's biscuit recipe. But if you are a Williams Sonoma or a Macy's, a user's inability to find an item means lost sales, damaged brand perception and annoying calls to customer service. Getting it right the first time means profitability. Running card sorts with your users can help you meet that goal.

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