Posted on Nov. 6, 2008

Many of our clients ask us what method we use in determining the best information architecture for their users. One effective and easy way to accomplish this is by using a technique called card sorting. The beauty of this technique is that you don’t need an Information Architect in order to do it and it’s effective in understanding how users categorize information.

To perform a card sorting exercise, grab a bunch of index cards and write each section of the site on a card. For example, Home, About Us, Contact Us, Services, Careers, Products, etc. Make sure that you capture every section that you want to have on the site. This process often helps you discover what sections you need.

The next step is to put the cards in piles of subjects you think belong together. You might group together About Us, History, Executive Bios, and Board of Directors sections. Once you’ve done this, record what sections go in which pile. Just make a list of each section.

If your site is complicated and deep, and you are concerned about usability, it makes sense to go through this process with different user types. Get volunteers from your company to create their own piles of content. This often reveals that users might expect a certain section to appear in a place that you did not previously think of. That’s okay. In fact, that’s good. You are not going to accommodate everyone’s expectations, but you will start seeing patterns in the way different user types organize content. You may also discover that some content sections belong in two categories. You can also treat these kinds of expectations by using cross links.

Sometimes you will find that you have sections that don’t seem to fit into any pile. Sometimes these oddball categories suggest an important user path. When that is the case, use a call to action directly on your homepage (above the fold, of course, or consistently across your site.

Your information architecture, while it should be intuitive, is not going to account for every way a user will get to the information they need. You need to consider many paths to the same information whether it’s by using internal links, calls to action, or a search tool. The most important aspect of information architecture is to make sure that users can get to the information they want easily. You’ll also want to direct them to the information that you want them to see. This is called key user paths. Whenever you can, make sure that your key user paths consist of three clicks or less.

This simple exercise can reveal patterns of user preferences that you may not have considered— especially if you are really close to the project. Card sorting is easy to do, doesn’t take much time, and reveals a lot about key user paths and expectations. Perform this exercise and no one will even notice your information architecture, or forbid the worst, have to learn how to move through your site. The benefits of this are better usability which, in the end, means more sales, leads, or user loyalty for you.

Ivy Hastings is a Project Manager at Fusionbox, a Denver Internet Marketing company. Ivy is a graduate of UC Berkeley and a member of the Board of Directors for Arts Street, a Denver, Colorado non-profit that teaches kids job skills in the Arts.