Card sorting – a great approach to building a better website

Elisa Berg, Deputy Director and Manager Online Strategy

Last year, our Deputy Director and Manager Online Strategy and Publishing, Elisa Berg, used card sorting to help us build our new website Everyday-Law. Elisa wrote a blog to help explain what card sorting is, and how you can use it to improve your website.

When you start building a website the biggest problem you will face is how to organise the content to make it useful for your audience. This is a critical step as research shows that if you organise your content well, including clear labels that make sense to your audience, you can vastly improve your visitors’ ability to understand and find information on it. This is what is known as good information architecture.

Legal websites tend to be organised by well-established legal concepts such as ‘civil law’ and ‘criminal law’, but these terms aren’t very useful to the public who aren’t familiar to them. So how to organise your information in a way the public can understand and have great information architecture? Card sorting can help you.

Card sorting: what is it?

Although card sorting sounds like something that happens in Vegas, it’s actually an effective approach to understanding how people think about your content and categories. Card sorting is particularly good for legal websites because it reveals the technical terms that people don’t understand. That’s why we used it when developing the Everyday-Law website.

In a card sorting session, topics are printed onto cards and the participants are asked to organise the topics into groupings that make sense to them. They can suggest labels for these groupings or you can test the labels you plan to use. By looking at how a number people group information you can gain insights into how you might organise your information.

When do you card sort?

Ideally, you should card-sort before the web developers present you with the site structure of your website, also known as wireframes. If you card-sort after the wireframes are finalised, it may be harder, and expensive, to make changes to the site’s design later.

Who is involved in the sessions?

The great advantage of card sorting is that you can do it yourself. There is very little cost involved, although you may choose, as we did, to recruit your card sorters from an employment agency.

Use participants who are representative members of your target audience. They may range across demographics, education and experiences of the law. Eight people is a good number.

The results

At the end of the sessions, the card groupings are recorded in a spreadsheet and analysed for common groupings and other insights.

While card sorting won’t provide you with the definitive organisation for your site – because no-one ever groups things in the same way ­– it will without a doubt improve the categories you decide on.

Ultimately, card sorting takes time, but the sessions are a great opportunity to understand how your content is viewed by the people who will be using it. For a step-by-step guide on how to card sort and analyse the results read Donna Spencer's definitive guide to card sorting.

Our insights from card sorting

Most people don’t think like lawyers

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the participants didn’t think like lawyers, who’d neatly group the words under criminal law, civil law and other traditional headings. This result confirms legal needs research in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada – that as far as possible it’s best to avoid traditional legal doctrines and technical terms when organising online legal content.

And, in many cases, the card sorters didn’t see specific problems as legal at all except, perhaps, when it came to crime, encounters with police and the courts. For example, serious neighbourhood disputes, divorce and traffic fines were viewed as operating outside the law.

Make your website’s navigation flexible

It isn’t possible for a website to accommodate all the subjective ways people approach information. And, the end result of trying to would be horrible! You should, instead, go with the most common understanding. You can also make sure your navigation is flexible for different users by cross-linking content across your site, using related pages or repeating information in different areas of your site.

Have a glossary and a controlled vocabulary

If you have to use a technical term, make sure you have a glossary that explains it in plain language. And avoid using multiple terms for the same things. For example, don’t alternate between ‘advanced care directives’ and ‘living wills.’ Choose one term and stick with it.

For more guidelines for producing a best practice legal website, look at the VLAF Online Legal Information Guidelines, developed to assist people who produce or maintain online community legal information

This page was last updated on February 11, 2015