Why Card Sorting Doesn’t Work: Create and Test Taxonomies Instead

Let me start out by saying that “doesn’t work” may be too strong of a phrase here. There are valuable things that can be learned from card sorting. However, I would suggest that you will be far better off having a information architecture expert create a taxonomy or site map for you and then use that to test users. This ” Create and Test” method is especially useful for large, deep taxonomies.

The reasons to have a knowledgeable expert create a taxonomy first, and then test it are the following:
1. You are not asking people who know little to nothing about usability or logically organizing information to create your site structure for you.
2. What is card sorting really? It is having a number of people give suggestions of possible groupings and possible labeling of those groupings. I would argue that you can get the same kind of feedback while users test your taxonomy.
3. Usability testing time required to test a taxonomy is far shorter than the time to do a card sorting exercise. During testing you will be watching users, measuring their success rates at finding the information they are looking for, and hearing and seeing feedback as to what issues they are having with naming and/or organization. What do you have at the end of card sorting? An oftentimes, very subjective set of data, the statistical significance of which is questionable if you are not testing hundreds of users. It is possible to test hundreds of users at once using online tests. I would argue that the online tests are far more valid that small sample sizes of 10 and under.

Some suggestions on the Create and Test method are:
1. Try to limit each category within your taxonomy to having 7-10 items if possible.
2. Create a click-through prototype of the taxonomy. This is not a full-blown site, but simply the categories listed as blue links on a page and when you click one, it displays the next level of categories. This allows you to see users interacting and allows them to talk through what they are thinking. It also helps you see if they were successful on the first attempt, second attempt or not at all.
3. Test a range of items or questions. Since you are doing a less time-consuming click-through test of the taxonomy itself, you can have the user find 10-15 things that would be contained within the taxonomy. If it is a product taxonomy, for instance, test some of your best known products, some obscure products, and other products where you are a unsure as to whether or not the taxonomy is solid. If you are testing a support site, maybe you give the user a list of 10-15 FAQs that most people seeking support ask and have them click through to where they think the answers are. Be creative here.

In the end, if you use the Create and Test approach, you will:
1. Get valuable feedback on naming and trouble points in your taxonomy.
2. Have strong measurable data about user success rates.
3. Have completed the test (and analysis) in a far shorter timeframe than with card sorting.

Overall, card sorting is effective in finding synonymous names for categories and identifying user agreement on category names that are strongly indicative of the users’ mental models. However, results are often not directly applicable because users are not as familiar with all of the content on the site, users don’t think of the confusing synonyms that could be a result of the words they choose, their categories sometimes mix unlike things in a confusing fashion, among other issues. In contrast, the Create and Test approach gets you much of the same feedback, without the longer timeframe, and gives you measurable success results rather than possibly applicable yet conflicting and not well though out suggestions.

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About Scott

Scott Barnard is the founder of The Usability Review and RememberStuff.com. After earning 2 degrees from MIT, he transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area where he had a front row seat to the dot com boom and bust and the subsequent growth in importance of web, mobile and desktop application designs to the everyday activities of businesses and consumers alike. Get in touch with Scott if you'd like to hire him to consult on web, mobile app, or desktop application design at sbarnard@theusabilityreview.com.
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