There Is No One Right Way To Categorize Information

Picture of xsort -- a free card sorting tool
xsort Card Sorting Software

My favorite conference of my career so far, either for attending or speaking, was the  UXLX conference (for user experience designers). I spoke at the May 2010 event (a year ago). It was my first ever time in Europe (I don’t count changing planes in Amsterdam). I was ok when I left the States, but by the time I landed in Lisbon I had a horrific cold. And yet I loved the 5 days I spent in Lisbon. Besides a great conference (another post I’ll write in the future), I got to spend time with the other speakers, among them Bill Scott, Steve Krug, Eric Reiss, Peter Merholz, Caroline Jarrett, Jared Spool and Justin Davis. The list goes on and on!

The Goddess of Card Sorting — One of the most lively and colorful personalities was Donna Spencer. She did a great talk on Design Games. She’s also the author of Card Sorting. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s just now that I have gotten around to reading this book. I’ll say it’s because I was too busy writing my most recent book, but I also think it’s because I don’t do a lot of card sorting anymore. (Card sorting is a wonderful technique that user experience designers use to find out how people are thinking about and organizing information. You give people a set of index cards or post-it-notes. On each card is a word or phrase, for example, if I’m designing a website about pet care, I might have a card that says “grooming” and another that says “preventive health care” and another that says, “Diet” and another that says “Exercise”. You give the cards to people who are typical of the visitors you expect to have at the site and you ask them to organize the cards in a way that makes sense to them. By doing this you can figure out how best to organize the information at the web site.) Because I don’t do a lot of card sorting anymore I thought the book would not be that enlightening to me.

WRONG! — The book title is misleading. Certainly there is a lot of information on how to conduct card sorting and how to analyze the results and act on them. But the first part of the book is a great explanation of what information architecture is all about. I don’t know if I’ve ever read such a great description of how to think about organizing information and pitfalls to avoid. Here’s one of my favorite bits from the book:

“I have worked on projects where people didn’t understand why we needed to do card sorting, or even make an effort to create an organization scheme. They expected me to do it the right way — the one true way of organizing the content. Often, their right way was the company structure; sometimes it was a technical aspect of the content. It can be quite hard to convice them that there is no one right way and, in fact, that users may not understand the way they are proposing.”

The best way to organize information depends on who will be using it, in what context, and for what purpose.

Things to do next —

1. Check out Donna’s book. (affiliate link below).


2. You can also watch Donna’s talk from last year’s UXLX conference on “Design Games”. Here’s a link to that talk:

Picture of Donna Spencer
Link to Donna's talk at the 2010 UXLX conference

3. And here’s a link to her website (from Australia).

What do you think? Do you know of Donna and her work?

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5 Replies to “There Is No One Right Way To Categorize Information”

  1. “The best way to organize information depends on who will be using it, in what context, and for what purpose.”
    love this summery i think that Adjusting programs to the people who will have to use them is a basic rule in any Profession it is he same in body therapy .thanks

  2. Sometimes, there is no right way, even for one person. Some sort of matrix (red or blue pill anyone)organization for data would be extremely useful for those who don’t think linearly.

    The person who comes up with a way to automatically reorganize information, in a reasonable time, on a PC or server according to how you’re currently thinking (hierarchical organization, functional, by information originator, etc), will make a fortune.

  3. I studied zoology as a young man. We did an awful lot of taxonomy which I found dull. However, the theories behind it are much more interesting. We were given a box of screws, bolts and nails of different styles shapes and sizes and asked to categorise them. Of course, the answer was that it could be done in many different ways.

    Sorting for the enduser is new to me, from this perspective of sorting by function, size etc. Very useful to think about.

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