Tips for Facilitating a Card Sort

Card sort workshop participants

Card sorting is a simple, fast, and user-focused design exercise that helps organize and structure data. As with other facilitated design exercises, card sorting reduces the guesswork typically involved in activities like information architecture design.

For more on card sorting see this how-to from Usability.gov.

Over the last month or so I’ve conducted six card sorting workshops with employees at a large public service organization. My work focused on intranet content, but the facilitation tips I’m sharing here could be applied to a card sort for any digital product or service.

Clarify ‘What’s in it for me?’

Rallying everyone around a purpose that addresses a need will yield greater participation.

The last thing most participants want is to work with yet another consultant on an exercise that feels disconnected from their daily routine. Whether you’re an employee or an external partner, your participants need to understand how they’ll benefit from what they’re about to spend time on.

In the case of the public service project mentioned earlier, prior evaluative UX research revealed just how difficult it was to find and use intranet content. Being aware of this pain enabled me to focus on a known need that I was certain most participants had. I started each card sort by stressing how important it is that content is organized and labeled according to how ‘you’ (the participants) expect to find it, and that the exercise we’ll be performing is a step in that direction.

The nodding heads and groans of ‘oh yeah, things are a mess’ brought us together, and I was seen as an extension of an organization focused on making things better.

Be assistive, not suggestive

Do what you can to remain a neutral and objective resource for process and support.

Facilitating is about enabling participants to think and solve problems for themselves. As a facilitator, your job is to give the group structure, centre everyone around a purpose, and assist with process where necessary. In a card sort, this means being clear with instructions, keeping the group on task when the conversation starts to drift, and being a resource to help the group if they need reassurance on the exercise.

Personally, it was tempting to weigh in as decisions were made. I had a wealth of insight from prior research but stopped short of furthering conversations where my input was likely to influence decisions on labeling and organization. Instead, it’s a good idea to use participant questions as an opportunity to dig deeper through conversation.

Here are some participant questions you may encounter:

“Is it common for these two cards to go together?”

  • Don’t: I’m not sure, but a few of the other groups have done that.
  • Do: Why do you ask? Is there somewhere else you might put this? How would you summarize the case for putting these cards elsewhere?

“Is this category label too long?”

  • Don’t: Yes. Try and keep it under 45 characters.
  • Do: Why do you ask? Do you think others will have trouble understanding the label? If so, why?

“Are there too many cards in this category?”

  • Don’t: Yes, try and keep it under seven.
  • Do: Why do you ask? Does the category feel too long or short to you? What’s telling you that?

Introducing suggested limitations takes the focus away from related content and places it on an arbitrary rule that, for the sake of following the rules, could skew the natural formation of groups.

Always listen

Though card sorting is more about design facilitation than it is research, any opportunity to listen to users is an opportunity to learn. A good researcher is adept at allowing participants to fill gaps in the conversation, and listening to what’s said during those gaps.

The workshops I conducted were largely focused on working with the cards, but there was ample conversation among participants. This conversation ranged from organizational challenges and ‘watercooler talk’ to questioning and/or rationalizing why certain cards do or don’t belong with others. The conversations that happen between participants are an opportunity to listen for new questions that require further research or insights that might be useful without follow-up research.

Be prepared to ask open-ended follow-up questions like “Tell me more about why you’re opposed to those cards being grouped together?” or “What’s telling you that others may find that confusing?”

Above all, remember to take your job as a facilitator seriously. You’re likely a designer, researcher, or product manager, but when running an exercise like a card sort you need to focus on getting as much from the group as possible. See Brian Frank’s post ‘Becoming A Better Facilitator’ to help sharpen your facilitation skills.




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Facilitation Information architecture Card sort

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