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Card Sorting Framework

When: Card sorting is a useful framework for any design that centers around gathering information from or distributing it to participants. Things that deal with displaying or gathering information are usually products. To function, information-based products also require systems to support them "on the backend", which means that some people or some system will need to process the information that's gathered or ensure the accuracy of the information that the product displays. Keep this in mind as you move into your product design; it probably won't stand alone. If you don't already have systems in place to support the product, stop your design phase now and re-scope; your design is too big. You'll need more time to create product-and-system design that works well together.

What: Card sorting is helpful when you are designing products that distribute a lot of interconnected information to participants. This method is often used by designers who are creating digital products, like websites, but you can also use it when making paper-based products or instructional materials.

Why: You may be very close to a service or system you are designing for, and so it may be hard to see it from the outside. Building a product that’s in tune with participants’ thinking increases the chances that people will successfully absorb and use the information you provide. As a result, they’re more likely to trust the product.

Get Started: The materials you need for a card sort are cards (plain index cards will do), a bold marker and your discovery findings.

    Review: Review your discovery findings. What are the topics or themes of information that the participants need to know?

    Organize: What is the hierarchy of this information? Is there a hierarchy? If there is, organize the information in the way your research indicates it should be organized.

    Write: Condense the topics and themes of information into short, descriptive phrases. Write these phrases on the index cards using a bold marker. All the phrases should be written in the same color.

Reuse: This framework can be used in at least two, if not more, design and testing cycles. In the first, most low-fidelity design, card sorting can help you understand the information and the hierarchy of that information that participants want and need. In a second, medium-level fidelity prototype, card sorting can be used to start identifying layout and formatting for the information.