Card sorting, or the activity of putting a bunch of terms in front of users and getting them to sort them into groups, has long been a favourite information architecture activity. As a practitioner, I’ve had more or less success with it over the years. Recently, it’s become a tool in the arsenal for stakeholder and employee engagement.

You can read about card sorting online in various places, so I won’t describe the intricate details of it. Donna Spencer, who wrote the book on card sorting, says:

Card sorting is a quick, inexpensive, and reliable method, which serves as input into your information design process. Card sorting generates an overall structure for your information, as well as suggestions for navigation, menus, and possible taxonomies.

When you ask people to card sorting in person, you give them a bunch of cards, give them partners to work with, and ask them to sort the cards into groups.

People sitting at a table sorting index cards

Useful for Engagement & Buy-In

In recent years, I’ve worked with clients who not only want to do user research, but also want to engage stakeholders and employees. A lot of projects I work on can be internal, so employees are actually the users. Stakeholders also like to be involved in the process. Here are some ways that card sorting with employees and stakeholders can improve engagement and buy-in:

  1. When done in-person with a cross section of the organization, people who don’t normally work together (or in fact ever meet each other) get to work together and talk about the jobs.
  2. They come to understand that there is a lot more to the organization than just their work, team, or silo.
  3. They have to work with others, so they see how difficult it can be to categorize information for people other than themselves.
  4. They get to see what other people do, how it is similar, and how it is different.
  5. They get to do something totally different than their current day-to-day work. Card sorting is an active activity: standing, walking around, sitting, talking, thinking, collaborating.
  6. They have fun. It always amazes me how much fun people have categorizing things! I love it, but others love it too!
  7. This activity exposes part of the process of creating those categories and structure. Stakeholders and employees start to feel included in that process and they learn about next steps. When they see the final result, they can understand how it came about.
  8. Simply asking people for their input increases buy-in.
  9. In terms of change management, people need to hear messages repeatedly before they buy-in and change. Card sorting is one way for them to hear the message, and to tell others about their experience.

Card sorting is one of the lowest cost ways to effectively engage stakeholders, employees and users. Before re-organizing anything, make sure you spend the time to consult and engage with a fun activity.