Cards on a table

A Card Sort in Progress by Yandle used under Creative Commons

I recently attended a session on on User Experience where they talked about the need for good UX, showed some good and bad examples of UX and shared some best practices. I liked the session a lot (and not just because I won a copy of Don’t Make me Think a book that I have wanted for quite some time). One of the techniques for improving UX that they described got me thinking a lot and that is the process of Card Sort.

What is Card Sort?

Card Sort is where you put individual items that make up the system on a 3” x 5” index card and you have someone who is going to use the system in question organize them logically. You do this several times with different stake holders and record the results. Depending on the users the results can vary wildly, so you usually have to go through a process of reconciling the differences. There is an alternate mechanism where you create a “straw man” card sort and see how your users go about finding something to see how the hierarchy needs to be adjusted. Card sorts are not a new technique and the deliverable of the sort is usually a site map if the system in question is a web application. It can also be used in the development of breadcrumbs and a lot of other ways to describe the “hierarchy” of the application.

Does Hierarchy Matter?

The reason I was so intrigued by this technique is that I can remember participating in these exercises and the painstaking detail that you can go through to create the content architecture and hierarchy of a system. This is often a consensus building exercise, as there is no real correct answer to the hierarchy. The other reason that I was thinking about it was I can’t remember the last time that I actually followed a hierarchy in an web application and I even use hierarchies less in less in desktop applications as well. When I want to find something that is not obvious I search for it. Search is not perfect (I don’t care what web search engine or desktop search engine you are using), but it seems to get me there much faster than navigating most hierarchies.

Is it is hierarchy or the Interface?

We are sorely in need of a better way to navigate hierarchies. I will pick on an internal site within Microsoft that I use frequently, but this problem seems to be pervasive to many applications. The site in question follows this hierarch to get to most of the content that I need on the site:

Site > International > Regions > North America > United States > Central Region

That is just the beginning, there a several layers below that (but below that level is content that I am interested in). The part that frustrates me is not the hierarchy itself (when I think globally I understand the need for it), but it is the JavaScript fly out menus that I have to navigate in order to get to a level that I am interested in. It is usually quicker for me to use a search engine than it is to navigate the complexity of the hierarchy interfaces.

Is it just me?

I raised the question of hierarchy versus search during the UX presentation. The presenter said that different users will search things in different ways. He considered someone who uses the search instead of navigating the hierarchy is probably the sign of a power user of the system (as an aside I don’t consider myself a power user). So I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Are hierarchies still important? Do you navigate or search? What are your thoughts on the the state of interfaces? Leave a comment or contact me.