Fix Your Site's Navigation Issues with this Technique

Posted on February 27, 2014
4 min read


There’s a song from Sesame Street that I used to sing when I was a kid. It goes something like this:

One of these things is not like the others.One of these things just doesn't belong.Can you tell which thing is not like the othersBy the time I finish this song?

This song probably wasn’t written as a conspiracy to shape the younger generation into an army of information architects, but it serves that purpose. It also gives consumers the critical thinking skills to know when the placement of something on a website is just wrong.

Consumers are smart like that. They may not have been to your website before, but they already have set opinions on where things should be, and if something isn’t where they think it should be, they won’t be happy – and they might very well leave your site and cost you sales revenue.

And website managers know that. Their analytics prove that.

Card sorting can fix your navigation issues

Often, clients will come to us at UserTesting wanting to use usability testing to test their navigation. They suspect something is broken, maybe want confirmation that something is broken, and want to know how to fix it. Usability testing is great for the first two parts. By watching users navigate through your site, trying to accomplish common tasks, you can get a good sense of what the navigation scheme, which looked so great sketched out on a white board, actually looks like to a user trying to shop on your site.

But for the third part – knowing how to fix it – you may want to consider combining usability testing with another method: card sorting. UserTesting can help you do that.

The reason card sorting may be better than usability testing when looking for navigation solutions is that card sorting goes beyond examining what is already in place. Card sorting seeks to get into users’ heads to see what mental models they naturally create to organize the information on your site – without biasing them with the scheme that already exists. This may sound painful, but it really isn’t.

How it works

Card sorting gives users a blank slate to create their own organizational scheme with predefined cards that represent pages, or groups of pages, on your site. In a traditional in-person card sort, users are given a stack of index cards with topics featured on your site and are told to organize them into groups according to what makes sense to them.

Closed card sorting

In some cases, users are given specific topic categories at the outset. That is called a “closed card sort.” This is useful if main categories are already set, and researchers just want to know what content should be placed into what category.

Open card sorting

But more often with this type of exercise, users are left to make up their own category schemes. This is called an “open card sort.” This method gives you more insight into how users naturally think about categorizing information and the connections they make among topics.

Tools for card sorting

Like a lot of things in the past 20 years, card sorting has gone online. Tools such as OptimalSort present users with an interface that lists the subjects to be sorted, and allow users to drag these subjects into groups of their choosing and then label these groups with something that makes sense to them.


A sample card sort using the OptimalSort software. UserTesting fits into this by helping you plan your study, recruiting participants from the UserTesting panel, and then providing the tools for users to tape themselves sorting their cards using a card sorting program – capturing their comments and thought processes as they work through the puzzle of deciding how the various subjects should be arranged.

You can add follow-up questions to an unmoderated study to gather additional insights, or make it a remote moderated session if that better fits your needs.

When would you run a card sort?

xWrong answer – After you’ve finished your site design, you have all your pages, and you’re ready to launch.

checkRight answer – When you’re still thinking about your site (or your redesign) in the concept stage. You have a purpose. You’ve done your user research, and you know what information your potential or current users want to see. Your question at this point is how it should all come together.

checkRight answer - When you have new content, but aren't sure where it should go in your existing structure

checkRight answer - When you have stakeholders who can't agree on where something belongs. Card sorting can provide the data you need to change irrational opinions.

Start asking these questions early.

You know the saying, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission”? That doesn’t apply to user research. The cold reality is that the further along you proceed into your design and the more you’ve invested, the harder it will be to justify making changes just because you’ve discovered problems too late.

And if your pages are already online, moving things around will not only mean redesigning much of the site, but also moving around web pages and building in a lot of redirects because the web gods abhor missing pages, as do user experience researchers.

That said, if your site is already live, and your navigation is confusing users, you'll need to ask forgiveness and solve them problem. It's still better to spend the time to fix navigation issues after your pages are online than to ignore the problems completely.

Card sorting can also reveal small changes you can make that would prevent the need for a complete site overhaul. For example, renaming content categories can go a long way toward making navigation more intuitive.

Here’s an example

You’re looking at the following menu items. Which one has wine openers?

  • Household
  • Personal care
  • Beauty
  • Health & Wellness
  • Grocery
  • Men’s
  • Gadgets
  • Natural organic

I would have guessed Household, but someone else apparently thought Grocery, because that’s where I found them on the website. Gadgets also could have fit. Another question that comes to mind in looking at this navigation scheme is why is there a Men’s category and not a Women’s category?

Do your research first and let a group of users decide your organization scheme, because when it comes to navigation, the user is always right.

In this Article