Another Fine Use of Sticky Notes

For quite a while I was stuck while in the process of designing my online portfolio. I had some ideas. I had some projects. I had some blog posts. What I didn't have was a plan.

How should the information be presented? How were all these various examples connected? What if a prospective employer wanted to know about my design process? What if someone wanted to see examples of a specific skill? What if a particular example falls under both categories--would I need to write about it in two different locations?

Luckily I've been studying user experience techniques.

You see, this is the same situation that many people and companies face when creating a website. How do you organize the information? How do you create a site that makes it easy for people to find what they need?

In other words, what is the information architecture of the site?

Have you ever tried to find a piece of paper in someone else's filing system? It could be easy if you both think about filing the same way. For example, I know I can find things quickly in my dad's filing cabinet because we organize things in a similar manner.

But that's usually not the case. People think different. People organize differently. People file differently. Even if the categories of folders are the same, the order could be reversed. It really throws me off some days that filing at work is done reverse-chronologically within a folder whereas I file chronologically at home.

Then how do you determine how your website (or app) should be organized when so many different people who think so many different ways will be using your site?

One way to do this is with a card sort:

  1. Write each kind of information to be sorted on a note card.
  2. Find people within the target audience for the site.
  3. Shuffle the cards and give the stack to one of these people.
  4. Ask the person to sort the cards into piles that make sense to him or her.
  5. Optionally you could have the person write a category name for each pile or group piles into larger piles.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for each person.

The information is then analyzed to determine the most user friendly information architecture for your website.

This technique is so common and helpful that there are even companies that will help you do an online card sort.

Personally I just wanted to use the technique as a brainstorm and a way to organize my own thoughts. So I choose to do a modified one-person card sort, as if I was one of the participants of a card sort study.

I began by writing all the parts of my blog and portfolio that I wanted to organize on sticky notes. Then I just started to shuffle them around on the table into various configurations that made sense to me.


One configuration I tried was piles based on project.


Then I tried turning those same piles into vertical lines with project headings at the bottom of each list.


That's when I realized that this particular collection of items was actually a grid. So I lined up similar items horizontally while keeping within the correct project column. And as a final step I added more sticky notes with arrows to denote rows as skills and columns are processes.

It was fun to do and certainly helped me clarify my thinking. If you have the opportunity to participate in a card sort I recommend it.

And if you find yourself stuck while thinking about a collection of information (even if it's not a website!) you should definitely try it.

Happy sorting!