Pick a Card (sort), any card

by Carmine Porco — In many cases, we are brought in by clients when they recognize that their intranet is outdated, difficult to navigate and cumbersome to use. While the scope of these projects will always vary, a constant is the need to define the proper information architecture. The IA essentially defines the intranet ‘site map’ – the schematic flow chart or hierarchy of the site, and is the foundation of a site’s usability.
Our approach to information architecture is to categorize the breadth of content and catalog it in a manner that makes logical sense to stakeholders. In general, when content is organized around descriptive actions or events users have an easier time finding what they want, allowing them to act on it in a timely manner.
To accomplish a successful website categorization utilization of a card sort is critical. There are many variations to running a card sort but the ultimate goal is to ensure the content is categorized into logical chunks.

Gathering/Culling the data

To cull the topics for categorization, simply do a high level audit of the present site. Look for a range of 75-100 content items to use for your sorting exercise. This should include all the major components of your site such as news, about the company, job opportunities, etc., as well as some more buried or obscure items such as contact names, policies or procedures or company awards. A good cross section is required in order to ensure that, when the card sort is being conducted, discussion occurs on where each item belongs. It is not critical that all content items are culled as this will take too much time and be counter-productive. As well, if a good cross section is gathered, and a third to fourth level information architecture is defined and agreed upon, the rest of the content items will fall into place.
One last caveat here, this is not a content audit in which each piece of content on the site is accounted for. However, a content audit is highly recommended to ensure old and no longer relevant content is purged. As well, if the audit is done at project outset—which it should be—it will also assist in determining the 75-100 content items for your card sort.

User discussion: working through the model

For an intranet’s IA, the crucial first decision is whether to place content in organizational silos or utilize an employee-central approach in which all the information is grouped by persona. Typically, organizations want to take the content items and put them back where they were on the original site: they simply are categorizing based on what they are used to, whether it is right or not. This of course, ignores the fundamental reason why the intranet was difficult to navigate in the first place. But while it is important to break down these organizational silos in order to improve navigation, breaking down silos will requires addressing the political considerations that will accompany this effort.
In order to break out of the old way of thinking about categorizing information, there are a few methods I like to use to challenge the site’s managers:
  1. Show the users other sites Information Architecture: Showing users how other companies organize their data illustrates what is possible. It allows them to “think outside the box” and look outside the organizational categorization.
  2. Ask them how they would personally like to find the information: By taking a content item and asking them, from a user’s point of view and taking away the organizational silo’d glasses, how would you like to find the information logically. For example, in an intranet, if I wanted to fill out my expense sheet, would I like to go to employee forms or an employee central area or go by way of the old process and find the department that has the form and look under their silo’d site.
  3. Challenge the status quo: Again, using the intranet as an example, ask users to place employee tasks into a bundle and call it employee central. You will find that there is a mix of different departmental items that fall into this category: Time sheets and expense sheets from finance, ordering new business cards from admin, download pay stubs from H.R. This exercise forces the users to think outside their silos. However it is not easy. Many users cannot make this leap. Depending on the age of the site, user expectations, historical IA and other factors, this may be difficult for many users. The challenge then becomes adoption. Although this may be the more logical step in re-organizing your data, can the organization learn, and it must be easy, the new information architecture without getting frustrated?
Below is a simple IA Prescient developed for a government client, after we conducted a card sort. The top bar represents the main navigation across the top of the site. The columns below are drop-down items that appear when a user mouses over the main navigation bar. This action allows the user to get a snapshot of the entire site without clicking on any particular item.
Although this is a simple site, developing the IA did take time. We utilized the same steps described above, and there was much discussion as to where each content item should fit. The categorization and the content items did switch categorization piles throughout the workshop. As well, the titles of each category continually changed. You will note that these titles are simply phrased titles that tell the user what is within. They are not forcing the user to guess at what “Asset Management” or “Features” mean.

Example I.A.

Corporate Profile
Properties for Sale
Recognition & Awards
Office of the President
Mapping to government buildings
& properties
News Headlines
Executive Team Profile
(with pictures)
Government Initiatives
Area conversion tool
Media Articles
Board of Directors Profile
Bid Opportunities
Public Symposiums
Major Projects
Presentations & Videos

Key lessons learned

  1. Single out the IA from the wireframes and design. Ensure you do not try and get consensus on all aspects of a web page such as layout, graphic treatment and Information Architecture. Take each component on separately and ensure you have sign-off on each before moving onto the next. The suggested order of operations is: I.A., layout and finally design.
  2. Let the dialogue flow: the first hour of a three hour card sorting exercise usually results in very little categorization. And this is good. Typically a good discussion ensues in order to determine “how to start”. Don’t think that this dialogue is unproductive. This discussion must occur to gain some consensus on moving forward with the categorization.
  3. Challenge the status quo: Do not accept the excuse, “this is the way we always do it.” As a matter of fact, I would recommend you take a page from George Castanza and do the opposite. You may be surprised at the outcome.
  4. There is no single solution. People think differently and it is nearly impossible to get 100% buy-in. Recognize that someone will not be happy with where a specific piece of content lives or what it is named. If you can get 80% buy-in, move on.
  5. Engage a third party expert. Although facilitating a card sort sounds trivial, it is not. I have seen cases where they were conducted internally and very little changed. Naturally, humans are adverse to change and stand by the old motto “we have always done it this way”. By utilizing an independent external opinion, you will garner a different and newer perspective that may elicit far fewer “I can’t find anything” complaints.

A Senior Internet Business Consultant and a regular writer and speaker, Carmine Porco is the Vice-President of Prescient Digital Media. For more information, or for a free copy of the white paper “Finding ROI”, please contact us.