Card sorting to improve information architecture 

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Ahead of our migration of the Scottish Enterprise website to our new design system, the User Experience (UX) team wanted to make some improvements to the information architecture of the site.

First of all, what do we mean by information architecture?

Information architecture, or IA, can mean different things to different people. To some it’s the sitemap, to others it’s the main navigation, to others something more abstract. 

According to the UX experts at Nielsen Norman, information architecture is both a noun and a verb, referring to both:

 “The practice of deciding how to organize and maintain your content, what the relationships are between each piece of content, and how content is visibly displayed on your website’s navigation” 

and also

 “The website’s structure, its organization, and the nomenclature of its navigation elements. The website’s IA refers to how information is organized, structured, and presented on that website.”

Why we wanted to look at our information architecture

Over time, the site had grown as more and more content had been added, meaning that: 

  • Some sections had become cluttered, with a large secondary nav and an overwhelming landing page.
  • Some sections were sparse, with a whole section of the main nav dedicated to just one service or topic
  • There was no clear place for some of the new content, such as green energy opportunities, hydrogen support and the new missions pages. This content focuses on supporting whole industries rather than specific business problems, so didn’t fit well with our other content
  • Some sections contained one clear type of content (for example, the events section only contains event listings). But other sections contain mixed types of content (for example, ‘support for businesses’ contains some service description pages, some information pages, some online tools, and links to external support). We didn’t know if this was working for users or not

Our new design system allows for a more flexible navigation, including both the main navigation and a new secondary navigation. We took the opportunity to do some research and make some improvements to coincide with the new migrated site. 

How we approached the research

We chose to focus on the ‘Support for businesses’ section of the site. This is the area that sees the most traffic, and it’s where most of our service pages sit. For each of our card sorts, we used our user testing platform, Userlytics, and targeted people in the UK who are business owners or senior decision makers. We felt this would give them enough contextual knowledge of business terms to complete the test and give reliable results.

Part 1 – the open card sort

We designed our first card test to be fairly open and exploratory, to give us an idea of:

  • which pages users think should be grouped together 
  • what sort of headings users give their groups 
  • how users approach categories. Do they put all the funds together, and all events together, or do they sort these into ‘topics’ alongside the support pages? 

To answer these questions, we created a card for each of the main pages in our ‘support for business’ section. We asked test participants to sort these into 3-7 groups that made sense to them, while avoiding creating groups with only 1 or 2 cards. 

Part 2 – the similarity matrix

Using the results from the card sort, we created a similarity matrix. This shows how many times two cards appeared in the same group, with darker colours showing the cards that were most commonly grouped together. Using a gradient colour across the cells made it easy to pick out potential groups. Here’s a screenshot of our similarity matrix, with some potential groupings highlighted:

a similarity matrix with darker shaded clusters showing where the most similarities were. These potential groups are highlighted in red circles.

Part 3 – defining groups

In a Miro board, we started to pull together the cards into sensible groups. As well as the data from the similarity matrix, we used our own contextual knowledge of the content of the pages, user journeys and tasks across our site, and business needs. We gave each group a heading that summarised the type of content within. 

Part 4 – the closed card sort

We then ran a follow up card sort, this time using a closed card sort. This means that we defined the group headings, and asked participants to sort the same cards into the groups we provided. This helped us test our hypothesis, and see if participants placed the same cards in each group that we did. For each group, we recorded:

  • which cards were placed there by the majority of participants
  • the cards that were split mostly evenly amongst two groups,
  • cards which appeared mostly in one group, but significantly enough in another group to suggest some cross linking was needed. 
a low detail screenshot showing four headings with a mix of green, yellow and orange post-its underneath

Part 5 – creating a new structure and sharing our research report

Using all the data we gained from our tests, we created an updated sitemap for this section of the site. We split the content into 5 sections:

  • Funding and grants. We kept this section the same, since this content is clearly defined and users mostly sorted it into the same group. We also know from analytics and user research that the majority of people coming to our site are looking for funding
  • Exports and international markets. We kept this section the same as well. We recently redesigned and optimised this section, so we knew it was already meeting user needs
  • Innovation, digital and data. This covers all the innovation and ‘tech’ type stuff – developing innovative new products, digital transformation, data driven innovation, and developing products for new markets like the green transition
  • Grow your business. All our content related to growing, developing and expanding a business – like finding new customers and markets, adopting new business models, planning for succession, getting support as an entrepreneur, and scaling advice
  • Improve business operations. All our content related to ways of doing business – reducing the costs of doing business, improving sustainability, building resilience, developing people and the workplace, updating manufacturing practises, and improving productivity

In some cases we removed secondary navigation pages to move content pages up a level, and in some cases we created new navigation pages to group together similar pages more clearly.

 You can see the new structure live on the Scottish Enterprise website now.

We created a research report documenting the test we ran, how we analysed the data and what decisions we made. We shared this report with key stakeholders and other teams involved in the migration project. 

Next steps

Information architecture is about so much more than making changes to the structure/navigation of an individual section of the site. This was an interim piece of work aimed at making enough improvements to the IA to help users navigate more easily and to accommodate new content that we know is on the horizon, without making so many changes that it slows down migration due to the need to do extensive research and design work, as well as get additional approval from wider stakeholders. 

In the next phase of this project, we’ll look at some more fundamental changes to the site. This might involve removing pages, adding new sections, and making more radical changes to the IA, user journeys and strategy. We’ll build on the research and findings from this phase of improvements to drive our decisions about how best to improve the site further for our users.

UX Writer/Content Designer in Scottish Enterprise's Analysis & Design team.

I help make products and services easier to use by carefully planning, crafting and testing the words they use. This includes content for end-to-end journeys, from UI text like buttons and headings, to messages like validation text or prompts, to longer form articles, guidance and information.

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