Card sorting offers a way to understand your users’ thoughts and to find ideas for designing a good IA. What it doesn’t do is confirm that your new IA is right. That’s what tree testing is for.
Tree testing vs card sorting: what are their differences and how to use them? In this article, we shine a light on the two most common UX research techniques to help design an information architecture, their benefits, and how to use them together.
You can also discover how card sorting and tree testing work together in our YouTube video.👀
➡️ Card sorting is a generative exercise used to create information architecture.
❗ It is a simple and straightforward method, however, card sorting has its drawbacks.
✅ Tree testing is a process often called reverse card sorting and is used to validate the effectiveness of an information architecture.
🧠 When seeking information people think differently than when categorizing information.
💡 A tree testing study should always follow a card sorting study, to make sure the information architecture is effective.
What is card sorting?
Card sorting is a UX research technique to understand the mental models of users and how they group information. It is often used to help generate an information architecture that is in line with the users’ expectations. It can be done using sticky notes or online, using a card sorting tool.
The process of card sorting entails users ordering pieces of content into related groups. Depending on the type of card sorting these groups can be predefined or not.
The three types of card sorting:
There are no predefined categories, users create them and name them on their own.
Users are given predefined and named categories to sort the information into.
Users are given predefined named categories, but they can also create their own, if they feel there is a need for that.
See how a card sorting study can look like in these demos: ⬇️
Card sorting is a technique that is very straightforward, even for people who hear about it for the first time. Unfortunately, this simplicity is also the reason why people can overestimate what results from a single card sorting can accomplish.
Can we put together an awesome information architecture right away, by copying the results of a single card sorting, where we have asked the respondents to sort absolutely everything on our site into categories? It probably isn’t hard to guess that the answer is “No.”
Drawbacks of card sorting
Structuring the content on your website in a way that is “just right” is a problem that is not so easy to solve. Especially because “just right” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Everybody has different points of view, different life experiences, and different priorities. This is why people can have different opinions about the meaning of certain labels or their approach to looking for information.
Card sorting is not intended to magically design the information architecture for you. It serves as more of a guideline – it gives you insights into “which content probably should go together.” Furthermore, the design of anything complex should always be done in iterations. This includes card sorting.
Follow up general card sortings with specific ones with a higher level of granularity. Follow up open card sortings with hybrid and closed ones. Design information structures based on what you learn. And then, validate the results of the current iteration.
How to set up a Card Sorting study
You can set up your first study with UXtweak in just a couple of minutes! Check out this quick video where we explain this process step-by-step:
What is tree testing?
Tree testing is a UX research method used to evaluate the usability and effectiveness of an already-existing information architecture. Users are presented with a tree (the information architecture) and are asked to click through it to find a card relevant to the task. The success rate is then used to gauge the effectiveness of the information architecture.
The easiest way to conduct tree testing is with the help of an online tree testing tool. The help of a tool makes it easy to download entire information architecture from an existing website or from an Excel file and create a tree for respondents to interact with. With the help of a good tool, you can do an analysis of absolutely anything the respondents did – where they clicked first, what path they took, how long it took them, and a lot more.
Check out what a tree testing study can look like for the participants: ⬇️
A good thing about tree testing is that it can be done without writing a single line of code. Since navigation helpers and graphical elements aren’t present in a pure text version of your tree-like structure, we can be sure that we’re testing solely the information architecture itself. As a bonus, you can find and fix issues in your information architecture super early in the development phase, avoiding the cost of having to do so in a later stage of the project.
How to set up a Tree Testing study
To learn the step-by-step of how to set up a tree testing study in UXtweak check out this quick video:
The process of designing an information architecture
The design process of making an information architecture begins with a list of various content and only a vague understanding of how it’s all linked together. The goal of designing information architecture is to find a way to structure the content, so it makes sense to the majority of people.
Card sorting as a technique gives us the ability to grasp how users see content and how they organize it in their heads. But once we create information structures with card sorting information as the basis, we also need to validate them. We need to find out whether our information architecture is working as intended with tree testing.
Tree testing vs Card sorting: How the human brain works
Seeking tasks and sorting tasks are very different activities, and the ways in which we process information during them are also quite different. When our brain is in the process of sorting pieces of information, it uses a lot of its capacity. It has to think deeply about the big picture while also trying to make sense of the task and even show creativity. This is what happens during card sorting. It’s a generative exercise.
Meanwhile, in seeking tasks, our brain is laser-focused on a single goal that it’s currently trying to achieve – to find the one thing that it’s looking for, while also discarding any information that it finds irrelevant. Just like when browsing the web in real life, the brain is lazy. It’s looking for shortcuts and often accepts the first solution that it can find, even if it’s not actually the best one. This is how users really browse through your website and what happens during tree testing.
From this theory, it should be obvious that once we’ve used card sort as a guide to design an information architecture, tree testing should follow. This way we can check how people in the seeking frame of mind interact with the information architecture.
Why tree testing should follow card sorting
By interpreting the information that comes from it, tree testing can be used to make conclusive judgments about the tested information architecture. Problems that appear in tree testing would arise again on a real website, which is not something card sorting can really uncover on its own.
For example, you might find out that only 50% percent of respondents managed to find the product in the right category, and even out of those, 30% went down a different path at first. By looking at the paths that the respondents traversed, you can find which category they considered to be a better option for the product in question.
And that is why card sorting should always be followed by tree testing to validate your information architecture.
Tree testing vs Card sorting: To sum up
Use card sorting to generate an idea of how your information architecture could look like. Conduct multiple studies if you have an extensive amount of content to sort and do open card sorting followed by hybrid or closed card sorting.
Test your card sorting results with tree testing to validate that your information architecture makes sense to users that are seeking information in it.
And that’s it! Your information architecture is ready to be used. Register for a free account on UXtweak and try card sorting and tree testing today. Happy designing!