How can card sorting and tree testing improve your website?

02 Nov 2017

Tree testing illustration

  • Read time: 5 mins
  • Tech level: low
  • Key point: structure your website with card sorting and tree testing.

When people in digital or marketing refer to terms like ‘card sorting’ and ‘tree testing’, many could assume they are code for a departmental bonding exercise that involves playing poker in a national park.

But when it comes to optimising your company website in order to achieve organisational goals, card sorting and tree testing are no joke.

Card sorting and tree testing will help your website visitors find what they are looking for easier and faster.

But card sorting and tree testing is not the same thing, though both tests are easy to conduct, and they both yield data that will help optimise the structure of your website.

However, card sorting is carried out before the structure of a site has been created. This is so you can understand how your users navigate your site. Tree testing is best accessed after card sorting has been conducted. That’s because it can be used as a way to refine your findings, verify strengths and improve weaknesses.

So what exactly is card sorting?

Card sorting is a powerful technique to help design the information architecture of a website.

It is a process of testing how target audiences would group and label content on your site in a way that makes sense to them.

Understanding these patterns will help you design the information architecture of your website in a way that is logical for users. This will lead to your visitors finding what they’re looking for quicker, especially when compared to an IA that only makes sense to the people inside your organisation.

Card sorting can be done using actual cards, pieces of paper, or by accessing online card-sorting software tools – which is much more common these days.

How card sorting can help your website

Card sorting will help you understand the way your users take in and process your content. Knowing how your users group and label information will assist you to:

  1. maximise the user experience by building the structure of your website to suit your ideal website visitor. This will help them to get to the benefits of your offering quicker
  2. help enable users to find the information they are looking for by presenting them with intuitive labels. If a visitor cannot find relevant information, they will feel frustrated. This can mean your potential customer will go elsewhere
  3. Improve your search engine optimisation because you’ll be employing the language your customers are using in their searches. This is far more effective than using internal jargon that makes your website visitors think.

Taking the frustration out of the visitor experience is essential. After all, a user friendly website that sells the benefits of your company will help deliver a competitive advantage to your company within its market segment.

The three steps for setting up a card sorting test

Setting up a card sorting test can be done in three basic steps:

  1. Define the cards
    Label the cards with key information from your website. Begin by dividing content into subject areas to keep relevant information together.
  2. Sort the cards into groups
    Ask your respondents to arrange the cards into subject areas that make sense to them. Ask them to name these groups.
  3. Once the results are in
    Once the results have been processed you will be able to identify any patterns that have been found. The data can be communicated simply by using visual statistical tools such as a dendrogram or similarity matrix.

Now that you know what card sorting is, you probably want to understand how it differs from tree testing.

The 101 of tree testing

So what exactly is a tree test? Tree testing evaluates a tree of information (hierarchical subject structure) by asking respondents to find places in the tree where specific information can be located. It is a usability technique for evaluating how easy it is to find content on a website.

Most websites are designed so that information is categorised into a hierarchy of subjects and related subject areas. Tree testing provides a methodology of understanding how users navigate the site to find content within this hierarchy.

However, unlike traditional usability testing, tree testing only uses labels but no content or design. Only using the text means respondents are not influenced by navigational aids on the site such as visual design, multimedia and other cues.

Not conducting the test on the website ensures that the information is evaluated purely on merit.

Tree testing is best used in combination with card sorting

  1. The benefits of tree testing are maximised when it is used as a follow-up to card sorting in order to evaluate the proposed menu structure of a website. This is because tree testing:will save on costs because it can be done before expensive design or layout work has been carried out.
  2. will save you time because it allows you to obtain valuable information before the web build. Tree testing can be carried out before any wireframes have been developed or any content has been written.
  3. will save on project resources because it can help identify problem areas or issues before they are created.
  4. utilises tasks similar to a usability test. Tree testing evaluates a hierarchy of content according to how easy it is to understand for end users.

But if this all sounds confusing or too hard, the team at Polished Pixels can help.

Experts in card sorting and tree testing

Contact Polished Pixels for assistance if you are planning a web project and want help with card sorting and tree testing.

We are a leading Sydney based website agency providing expert website design.

All of our team members have previously worked in large organisations. We understand the frustrations that come with not being able to improve a company website.

We can help with all aspects of maximising the usability of your website, from whether you will be doing a physical card sort or using online card-sorting software, to how to find testing respondents, to how to understand and present data using visual statistical tools such as a dendrogram or similarity matrix.

We specialise in building user-friendly websites for corporate clients, as well as government agencies and universities. Services include enterprise class CMS implementation, web design, website content strategy, usability and customer centric design.

The result is a strong web presence created with significant savings on company time and budgetary resources.

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Tim McQueen, Director

About the author

Tim started his media career in 2002 at Foxtel and since 2005, Tim's worked in senior digital positions at a number of reputable organisations including The Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse, Macquarie University and Universal Magazines.