Card Sorting Exercise Helps Inform HCL Intranet Redesign

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Net Redesign Team member Chris Jeris explained the details of the card sorting process to participants at the session's beginning as fellow team member Cheryl LaGuardia looked on, prepared to assist with questions.

August 20, 2008 – Last Wednesday morning, the Lamont Forum Room looked more like an exam room than a meeting space. Fifteen staff members from across HCL had volunteered over an hour of their time to participate in a special exercise: Armed with just a deck of cards, post-it notes, and a pencil, the 15 were helping to determine the organization structure for the next iteration of the HCL intranet. Each participant received an identical deck of 104 small cards, each card representing a piece of content (such as a form or policy) from the current intranet.

Heads bent in concentration, staff members worked individually to sort their cards into groupings—some small, some large—that reflected how they thought information should be organized on the intranet. After determining what pieces of information belonged together, in their eyes, they were then tasked with giving each grouping an appropriately descriptive name. If participants felt a vital piece of information was missing from the Net, they were also allowed to make a note of it on a blank card.

Chris Jeris, Senior Software Engineer in ITS, initially proposed the card sorting exercise and researched the methodology. To prepare, he consulted multiple online sources, among them internet expert Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox columns, Steven Hannah’s master’s thesis at the University of Minnesota about card sorting, and an extensive guide on the subject compiled by Donna Maurer and Todd Warfel. To analyze HCL's results, Jeris also adapted the complex data analysis spreadsheet from resources related to Maurer's forthcoming book.

"Card sorting is a standard technique in information architecture," explained Jeris. "We ask users to group related pieces of information together, then use simple statistical analysis to combine the responses into a consensus set of groups. This helps us construct the 'neighborhoods' that should appear together in the site's navigation."

Because card sorting relies on the user's perspective to gauge where users expect to find a given piece of information, participants were asked to try to not think about the site's current organization. Sometimes card sorting results can change a website's navigational structure significantly, other times less so. While information on the final website will still be findable in more than one way, an exercise like this offers a fresh take on the website’s overall structure.

The card sorting exercise is part of the ongoing process to redesign the current Intranet, now more than four years old. The HCL Net Redesign Team of Beth Brainard, Director of Communications; Enrique Diaz, Designer/Multimedia Specialist; Jen Tomase, Writer/Electronic Media Specialist; Cheryl LaGuardia, Research Librarian in Widener Library; and Jeris has been meeting throughout the summer with representatives from HCL libraries and administrative groups to gather feedback about what does and doesn’t work for users on the current Intranet and to solicit ideas for the redesigned site.

Once they have been analyzed, the anonymous results of HCL’s card sorting exercise will be posted on the intranet.

Exercise participants were: Julia Ashmun, Senior Software Engineer, ITS; Laura Farwell Blake, Research Librarian, Widener Library; Tom Bruno, Head of Interlibrary Loan Division, Widener Library; Barbara Burg, Research Librarian, Widener Library; Gennie Smyers Buxton, Manager, Bibliographic Services, Preservation & Imaging; Linda Collins, Head of Access Services, Lamont Library; Michelle Durocher, Head of the English Division, Technical Services; Beth Flood, Music and Media Cataloger, Loeb Music Library; Michael Hemment, Head of Research and Learning Technology; Jim Hodgson, Tracing Supervisor, Widener Library; Michael Hopper, Head, Middle Eastern Division, Widener Library; Rhea Karabelas Lesage, Head and Bibliographer for Modern Greek, Widener Library; Reed Lowrie, Science Reference and Cartographic Librarian, Cabot Science Library; Emily Moss, Editor / Indexer, Tozzer Library; and Danila Terpanjian, Technical Services Librarian for the Social Sciences Program of CSS.

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Rhea Karabelas, Linda Collins, Laura Farwell Blake, Emily Moss, and Michelle Durocher began sorting their identical card decks.
Participants were asked to divide their cards--each representing a piece of Intranet content--into groupings that made sense and then to give each group a relevant title.
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Participants in the Forum Room--shown here with Reed Lowrie and Michael Hemment in the foreground--were hard at work during the hour-long exercise.
Some participants, like Julia Ashmun, spread out their decks over the entire table as they organized their cards into logical groupings.