Card Sorting Doesn’t Cut the Custard

Where's the custard in your supermarket?
Where's the custard in your supermarket?

Why I don’t use Card Sorting

Card sorting is a simple technique in User Experience Design where a group of   users are guided to arrange subject-headings under pre-determined categories or into groups which make sense to them.

For example, a card labelled “apples” might logically sit under a category labelled “fruit”.

It can be a useful approach for designing menu structures or website navigation paths.

But I haven’t used card-sorting since 1999.

Why? Because since the advent of the Content Management System (CMS) I haven’t needed to. The CMS changed the way I approached information architecture forever. I’ve never again needed to resort to card sorting in order to locate content in a place which is intuitive for ‘most users’.

In my view card sorting is a bit of a hack to resolve the issue of static websites where the content is forced to live in one place.

It’s like going to the supermarket and looking for custard powder. To me it makes sense to look for it within the cooking section next to sugar, baking powder, cornflour etc. But good luck finding it there because you’ll usually find it in the desserts section next to jelly and ice-cream cones.

Am I stupid? No, I just think different (and I know I’m not alone).

But why can’t the custard powder be in both places? And why can’t it also be next to the pre-made custard in the chiller? That would make sense too right?

Custard goes next to custard?

It’s because of physical constraints – supermarkets are dealing with physical products and usually can’t afford the space to locate food in more than one isle.

But, websites are different. We’re dealing with data, which is cheap, flexible and can transform itself into many formats and locations. This means, wait for it… the content can live in more than one place at once!

Why restrict it to live in a place the majority wants? What about the other 49%?

Call me a liberal hippy, I don’t care. I’m all for proportional representation.


Doing this with a half-decent CMS is easy. It allows you to create multiple pathways to content by attaching categories/metadata/tags. The trick is to then leverage these tags and make them part of the navigation.

So all of a sudden a whole new world opens up… all roads lead to the content, in a way which makes sense to pretty much anyone.

An example I use when designing intranets is the ‘Leave Form’. Everyone uses it right?

But how might different people think where to find it? Where would they start?

  • The Human Resources Manager might be thinking: “HR Form 305” or “Holidays Act”
  • The Team Manager might be thinking: “Leave Application” or “Leave Request”
  • The Staff Member might be thinking: “I want to go on leave” or “Leave form” or “Holiday”

If the content lived in one place under one label then chances are that some people would spend precious time fluffing around trying to the find the elusive Leave Form.

A few might not find it and email the busy HR Manager. Well, I say, make it available in ALL these places. Why not?

Hereb are a few examples of sites with multiple pathways to content…

Ministry of Transport

Want to find statistics on road crashes? You can get to the right report via a number of pathways…

  • By audience type (e.g. “motorists”)
  • By transport mode (“land”)
  • By topic (e.g. “crashes”)
  • By content type (“research”)
  • By searching (e.g. “statistics”)


Need to cook vegan chocolate cake? You can get to the right recipe via a number of pathways…

  • By ingredient (e.g. “chocolate”)
  • By dietary consideration (“vegan”)
  • By category (e.g. “desserts”)
  • By searching (e.g. “vegan cakes”)


Want to save power? You can get to the right advice via a number of pathways…

  • By goal (e.g. “I want to save money on my power bill”)
  • By topic (“energy”)
  • By searching (e.g. “save power”)

I’m not saying you should throw card-sorting out the window. It might prove useful in some situations.

But it’s time we all starting thinking of content, not as a static thing which needs to be locked into a certain box in some dark corner of your website, but as dynamic.

Set it free! Let it bubble-up to the right place at the right time for your users.