How to get control over the digital chaos

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we have talks on digital standards and re-energising card sorting.

Skip to talk 1 or talk 2.

This weeks show is sponsored by Fullstory and Teacup Analytics.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the Boagworld show, the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag and joining me today is Marcus, jetlag, Lillington. Hello.

Marcus: (Snore)

Paul: Exactly. I am very confident that this is going to be the worst show we’ve ever done. Because you have got jetlag and I, I feel sick as a dog.

Marcus: Ah, are you poorly Paul?

Paul: Well, you know, man-flu.

Marcus: You need more vitamins in your diet or vi-ta-min, that’s because I’ve just got come back from America.

Paul: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You say that but, you know.

Marcus: But your often poorly. I worry about you Paul.

Paul: I’m sickly. I’m a sickly child.

Marcus: … Sickly child. (Laughter) Yeah, I don’t feel too bad I have to say. I managed to upgrade on the way home which was rather nice.

Paul: Oooo.

Marcus: I can’t say how but I just did.

Paul: Oo, mysterious.

Marcus: Yes! (Laughter)

Paul: Who did you bribe?

Marcus: Connections! That’s all I can say. Yes, that was good. But Leigh and I managed to, basically the business class seats were cheaper than the premium economy ones, economy, can’t speak. Put the teeth back in. They were cheaper on the way out than premium economy so we flew out business class. And it’s much more fun when you are awake. You can enjoy it.

Paul: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. The reason I’m sick I’ve decided is because we went to IWMW last week which is a conference that we go to every year and it is just interacting with other human beings. My immune system is just not used to it any more.

Marcus: (Laughter) Yeah, I suppose so. Although I haven’t got anything but then maybe I interact with people more. The client that we have just come back from… Well basically Paul it’s the company that we used to work for Dickstein Shapiro which obviously you worked at. It’s the company that has basically bought them out. So we were back in the same meeting rooms and offices which was a bit déjà vu.

Paul: Ooo, very weird.

Marcus: But my point there, there is a connection, is that there were lots of them. So maybe I’m going to come down with something nasty too.

Paul: Yes, because you weren’t at the conference last week that long. And also you didn’t drink as much as I did.

Marcus: Oh, I did Paul!

Paul: Oh, did you?

Marcus: Yes. Well, I didn’t realise that you weren’t speaking until the last morning and so I thought well, we’ll all go, me you Chris and you will go out on the Wednesday night but you are like “I’ve got to speak tomorrow” so went to bed. We went out on the town man!

Paul: Well I had an interesting night the night before so, you know, I wasn’t really up for doing it again. It is such a good conference. I so love that one. Everybody is just so nice aren’t they? Well they are not, they are really rude to me but in a nice way!

Marcus: Like they like you way. Yes, they are pretending to like you in a really, really genuine way.

Paul: Yes, very convincing. And also, you know, I can see… Because we’ve been going to that for what? 10 years? Over 10 years?

Marcus: Yes, must be.

Paul: I can now see my propaganda and indoctrination beginning to stick with them! (Laughter) Do know what I mean? It was like so much of this year’s conference was about all the stuff that I bang on about. We all got very excited about digital governance. How sad is that!

Marcus: Do you know what the best moment was for me?

Paul: What’s that?

Marcus: When I was asked to hand out the quiz sheets.

Paul: Did you feel like you were one of the boys?

Marcus: I was accepted. Even though I am on the dark side from a 1/3 party suppliers. I really can’t speak today! From a 1/3 party supplier I was handing out quiz sheets.

Paul: What’s that weird noise?

Marcus: That was my phone, going Bee-boop. But it’s turned off now.

Paul: Oh, okay. So, yes. I did find it a bit depressing, mind, because they’ve got so good. Everybody is so switched on now. It’s like I’m going to have to up my game! That’s the trouble with being a consultant you have to… It’s like being a teacher isn’t it? You, like, have to be one step ahead of the class.

Marcus: That is very true, although I think that H.E. are a long way ahead of other industries.

Paul: Which is a bizarre thing to say because for a long time they were anything but.

Marcus: (Laughter) Yes. But it is your indoctrination has worked Paul and there’s a lot of good people who know a lot.

Paul: I said this in one of my, in my talk that you didn’t stay around for because you don’t love me enough! Where I actually said I think that the people in that room were possibly the world’s authority at herding cats. (Laughter) Do you know what I mean? It’s like nowhere have I come across that is so devolved and so chaotic as H.E. So, yes, good for them. So there we go. So that’s what we’ve been doing which is really exciting for everybody.

Marcus: Yeah, well, you know if somebody is vaguely University like and has never been, go!

Paul: And I think, not only that, but I think that says is go to conferences. They are great.

Marcus: I know, yeah, I know. This is why I am going to see you speak in Barcelona in October, Paul! Because I have to go to more conferences and they have to be in places like Barcelona, no, they don’t have to be in places like Barcelona. Both Chris and I are really bad. We just kind of, as I’ve said in this podcast over the past couple of years “Things are going well, we’re busy, we’ve got lots to do” but that’s not enough. You need to continue to be part of the community which we are bad at. I need to be kicked up the arse basically and get out there and talk to people.

Paul: Yes. You are not alone in that, I think a lot of people are like that and it’s very easy to just kind of plod along in your little corner. And okay, I know you can learn everything online that you could ever learn at a conference but it’s meeting people, it’s being with people, it’s moaning about problems and you know, it’s just so good. So good. Anyway.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: So, let’s talk about our first sponsor and then we can get into our first talk. Because this season, although we have talks is not a replacement for a conference. Just to be clear! Right, Fullstory first up.

So, full story, ahh, I just love this app so much! I’ve been using it this week. So, one of the big problems I suffer from on my site… I’m just going to totally ignore my script now! I’m going to talk about myself, rather than the sponsor.

Marcus: You never sent me the script so I can’t even follow the script because I haven’t got it.

Paul: Oh, have I not sent it to you this time?

Marcus: No, that’s how much you care Paul.

Paul: That’s why you’ve got no comments in the script.

Marcus: I have them here written in my fine handwriting.

Paul: Lovely. So one of things I have been struggling with is bounce rate on my site, that I want to encourage people to explore and look at more than one post. And, you know, I recognise that’s not always… Bounce rate by itself is not an inherent problem but it’s something I have been working on. One of the areas that I have found that I was suffering from was on the home page. So I redesigned my homepage a little bit and on the homepage I had this big long blur, blur text at the top saying what the site was about and stuff. So I had a feeling that that wasn’t quite working and I was looking at my analytics, I was looking at Fullstory should I say, and I was watching some user sessions on the homepage and they just shot past it. You know, they didn’t stop and read it. So I thought, let’s get rid of it. So I got rid of it and instead what I have done is I have put three buttons, one to the blog, one to the podcast and once in my books. I’ve been watching sessions and I can go in and actually go in and say “Show me any sessions where people have clicked on this or haven’t clicked on this” and I can look at what percentage of people click on it and don’t click on it and all of that kind of stuff just by using CSS selectors. Or the text that is written on the button, for crying out loud, if you want to be really basic about it. And it’s just been great seeing, actually seeing users stop now, pause at that part of the screen and then in a lot of places actually click through and see the other stuff. So, just being able to see those sessions is absolutely brilliant. But another really good thing that was particularly good about it was the fact that something that I was doing on the page when I was messing around with it. It all worked fine for me but while I was kind of looking at Fullstory I was finding that it was throwing up a JavaScript error for some people. And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t have been looking at Fullstory. Because of course, Fullstory allows you to look at the JavaScript errors and even get a detailed log of them and what has happened to them. It even captures things that are gnarly single page apps with react and angular and all these other words that I don’t really understand any more! So, it is really great for actually kind of co-browsing with people to understand and troubleshoot their experience on the site. You can even do that in real time as well so you can tie it up with something like a live chat facility or something like that. It is just so good! Fullstory is brilliant. Anyway, go and find out more about it, try it out yourself. You can try it for absolutely free for ever, for ever and ever. You get 1000 sessions are free per month. If you want to give the whole shebang a go, in other words not limited to a thousand sessions, you can get their free pro account, or you can get their pro account free for a month if you go to You don’t even need a credit card which is always a bonus. They’re not going to suddenly start charging you at the end, which annoys me. All right, that’s cool, that’s that one. Done and dusted, thank you Fullstory for supporting the show.

Let’s talk about our first talk. It’s a bit different this time, it’s an interview.

Marcus: Yeah, this confused me.

Paul: Ah, did it?

Marcus: Yep, I’m like “what’s going on?” Especially in my current state. Because I thought “Oh, I’d better listen to these I haven’t…” Because normally I listen to them like the weekend before but because I’ve been away I thought I’d come back and have a listen. I started playing this one and I was confused.

Paul: Ah, that’s really sad. I’m sorry I caused you such distress! No, they wrote to me and asked permission to do an interview because the lady felt a bit funny about doing it herself. So… which was fine by me, I don’t care! You do any way you want. And it works really well. So it’s fine. Caroline, Carolyn, oh…

Marcus: Carolina. (Laughter)

Paul: I knew that! I literally just stumbled over the word but because of course I’m so bad at names now everybody just presumes I’m an idiot. Anyway. She’s a digital expert with over 17 years experience in managing multilingual online products. Oh, lucky her, multilingual, flipping heck, I hate that. I don’t mind it if it’s Western character sets but it’s once you start getting into, like, Japanese or something it all just gets really complicated. She’s participated in enterprise level digital transformation projects, a lady after my own heart. In her latest adventure, wow, she has adventures! She is implementing digital governance for a highly decentralised global organisation. Ooo, shall we guess who that might be?

Marcus: It might be one we’ve worked for.

Paul: Yeah, I was thinking that. I was thinking exactly the same as you were there. Hmmm, lucky her! I hope she has more luck doing that than we did. So, she is going to talk about basically digital standards and how digital standards are so intrinsic to your digital success which is a subject that I like to bang on about lots. So over to Carolin-a, Carolina. Anyway, her!

Keeping your digital roads open and running with standards

Play talk at: 12:51 – Digital standards are a lot like roads in a city. To keep the traffic moving you need good rules of the road that everyone can abide by. It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the ride nor your unique taste in cars. It just keeps everyone safe and happy.

Carolina Ramirez: Keeping your digital roads open and running with standards
Carolina Ramirez is a digital expert with more than 17 years of experience in managing multilingual online products. She has participated in enterprise level digital transformations playing different roles each time. In her latest adventure, she has lead the implementation of digital governance for a highly decentralized global organization. Find out more about Carolina at Interviewer – Kristina Podnar

Kristina: So hi Carolina. We’ve been talking about this thing called digital standards for a while so I was wondering if you could tell us all about these things we call digital standards and why are they so useful to an organisation, especially one with a global online presence?

Carolina: Hi Kristina, you know, when I speak about general standards I like to equate the organisations digital presence, by that I mean the website, the social media channel the mobile apps to a city. When I talk to them I say to people, well, you know, you want to welcome visitors, make sure that they can visit the city, circulate, feel safe, find their way, discover buildings, sites. But you know the key for a well-organised city is there are rules and these need to be followed. So, for example you can think about traffic laws. They need to be respected. Even building codes. So we could kind of equate those to policies. Then there are elements such as traffic lights which we can actually equate to standards. So for example, it is universally known, or almost known, that when a traffic light is red it means stop, when it is orange it will be caution and when it is go its a green… When it is green it is go. So we are actually surrounded by standards, and if they did not exist it would actually be a very chaotic world. And you know, we can think about other things, lightbulb sizes, window sizes, wheels on a car. So an organisation’s digital presence also needs to be properly managed, you know, so that our customers, our users feel safe, they feel excited, they can find information, the product, and they can interact with us. So digital standards together with policies really enables an organisation to have a strong digital presence. They can be divided into different categories because actually digital is really at the centre of multiple disciplines. Think about technology, communication, marketing, fundraising, design. One categorisation that I like is the one that Leisa Welchman does in her book Managing Chaos. She has the book in four categories. Design, so that could be for example your style guide. Another one would be editorial, so think about what will be your organisation tone and voice. Then you have publishing and development, so think about your tools for example what will be the content management system that the organisation is going to be using to manage their websites. Then you have the fourth one which is networks and service, that has to be with your infrastructure and hosting. Are you going to be using cloud? Or are you going to be using third-party hosting? Certain of these standards could overlap into more than one category. It’s also important that standards are mandatory and, you know, that you make them achievable. Then you can measure their adoption so that is it, in a nutshell, why digital standards, what they are and that they are key for a robust and strong digital presence for an organisation. Especially if it is a global one with its presence spread out through different countries and markets.

Kristina: Such a great description, I really like how you equated to cities and with the traffic lights. So if someone really wanted to get this stoplight mechanism implemented in their organisation what do you think is the best way to get started with digital standards? What should they do?

Carolina: I think the first thing is to do an assessment, you know. Maybe an organisation doesn’t have a practice or a team, for example, for digital governance but maybe there are already elements in place that everybody is following and that can be your standards in disguise. So for example maybe in your organisation there is an agreement that everyone will use a certain version of the logo for the profile pictures of official media accounts. Or websites will be using a particular tool. So when you do this assessment it will allow you to see what exists, what doesn’t, what is mission-critical. So for those that already kind of exist in disguise it reaches the question of articulating them, making them into standards. For those that do not exist but then you identify that they are mission-critical you have to see if you have the knowledge in-house to create the standard. You might need to bring in external expertise. Or, if you have it inside, you could also, a way to start is looking at things that are guidelines or even start something as a guideline which is not mandatory and see what is the response of people. Are they adopting it? Are they having a difficult time? And then you can start adjusting. One area that I actually like to… I think it is an easy way to start is when it comes to accessibility standards. And this is because the W3C has done a great job creating web content accessibility guidelines. So these are universally and they help us make our website accessible for people with disabilities. So the first thing to do would be to study those guidelines and decide which ones make sense for the organisation. Which ones can you put in place. Actually, in some countries there are laws so that certain websites need to be to be accessible for people with disabilities so you could also take those into account. Then, you know, you look at the different guidelines, you select them and that you can transform into your accessibility standards for your organisation. Then you can go through the different categories that I mentioned but an assessment is the first step.

Kristina: That’s great advice. Of course, once you do an assessment and you kind of figure out some standards I’m assuming you have to get them implemented. So I know that you have had a lot of years experience implementing standards and this is really where the rubber meets the road so to speak. How do you personally advise that those in charge of digital standards go about distributing digital standards and really getting staff to adopt them and follow them? Because that’s really a challenge.

Carolina: It is. So I think you need to educate people, you know, we spend a lot of time educating people through different webinars, speaking to them, explaining and the thing is that when… You cannot just create it and think that people are going to adopt it. Again, I think that it comes also to the fact that digital sits together with various disciplines. For example what I have found is that our IT colleagues, they really like policies and standards because they navigate in that world. However our colleagues in communications or maybe fundraising, marketing they are less prone to follow policies and standards because they don’t necessarily navigate with those in place. So you have to educate and I think one of the obstacles is that people think that when you put policies and standards into place these are obstacles, you know, obstacles to creativity, obstacles for many things. But actually it is quite the contrary because once you kind of explain what are the rules of the game you can really create amazing products that are going to not only… That you can take to the next level because they are going to be taking into account safety, they are going to be taking into account consistency of your brand. They will only make your presence stronger. So I think once you start explaining that to people and why you need certain things then the more you explain people do buy into it. One thing that we did in the organisation that I work with, you know, we issued these standards on search engine optimisation but we issued them together with an E-course on SEO. And this was the basics, where as the E-course was not a class on the standards it was about the practice and we mentioned the standards so it really complemented it. People did see the value of it and then, you know, the standards can be, because they are much more detailed than “How do you do it?” Then you can follow the standards and you can also share them with your vendor’s if you do a lot of outsourcing. So you make sure that they are going to also be implementing those. So there is a lot of education, it is not only issuing then and expecting that people will adopt. I think education becomes, you know, probably 70% of the work that you have to do to create adoption.

Kristina: Seeing that you have had a lot of experience in this space I hope that others can actually understand the value of standards as you have explained it as well. I am wondering if somebody is listening to this stream and they see the value of standards and want to get started, what are the three most important things you think that they should consider and take action upon?

Carolina: I think, you know, again, you have to educate yourself to be able to educate others, so thats a first step. Because you will need to really believe in the value of governance, of standards and policies to be able to really become an evangeliser for your organisation. You have a lot of sceptic people but then, you know, if you know the value you can stand by it because you have educated yourself, that would be a great step to start so that you feel comfortable. Another important thing is don’t start working on your digital standards in a silo. You cannot do it yourself. You really need to rely on your subject matter experts and also take into account the people that are going to be putting these standards into place. You know, so never work in a vacuum, that will do you a disservice. One thing that we did also, we bought experts in the field that gave us a good foundation and then that helped us to start and then continue the implementation. So it is education, see what’s out there, what makes sense. You have to also have a good knowledge of your organisation. Talk to other disciplines, where they might have that. So again IT tends to be a field where they work much more with standards and procedures and policies, even HR and kind of look at those other disciplines and how you can bring that to digital. And you can make it exciting and something really practical for people to implement.

Kristina: Great, well you’ve definitely inspired me into going to maybe write some digital standards or at least start thinking about them for the afternoon. So thanks so much for sharing your insights Carolina, we appreciated.

Carolina: Thank you Kristina, this was a lot of fun.

Paul: So cool, so that was a nice change to have an interview.

Marcus: It was. Even though it confused me but I got it in the end! It was like listening to a female version of you Paul,I have to say.

Paul: With a much nicer accent.

Marcus: Oh well, yes. Well no, you’ve got a nice Worsley accent.

Paul: Worsley! I don’t think nice and Worsley are two words that go together are they?

Marcus: Well it reminds me of when I was a small boy and I would go back to see my relatives in Devon. So that accent I view with affection.

Paul: Ah, thank you Marcus!

Marcus: Ah!

Paul: So, so many good things in that. I liked her… I think it was Leisa Reichelt actually, Carolina referenced her talking about the different type categories of standards. Design, content, publishing, network and services. I thought that was quite interesting. I never thought about that. I need… I haven’t read Leisa Reichelt’s book yet! I am ashamed of myself.

Marcus: Didn’t she edit yours?

Paul: I know!

Marcus: That’s poor Paul. (Laughter)

Paul: It is really poor isn’t it.

Marcus: Yeah. I quite liked… One of the things she said which I thought “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” which probably people do anyway, is to take existing guidelines and extend those.

Paul: Yes! Yeah, the kind of unofficial ones that people already doing.

Marcus: Yeah, because it’s like… people will be working to those. So let’s take those and extend them rather than “This is a brand-new thing that you have to adopt and an additional thing to your work.” It’s not, is what you’re already doing just with a few extra bits on. I thought that was wise.

Paul: Yes. Very wise, I also liked the idea of measuring standards to see how well adopted they have been and whether they are actually working. Again, that’s two things she came up with that I had never even occurred to me. That’s terrible considering I supposed to be, like, know about this stuff! It’s not like she’s talking about development. So…

Marcus: The thing that she said quite near the end was that you need to believe in what you do to make it work. And that applies to everything. That applies to sales, obviously I’ve done sales for years. If you don’t believe in what you are selling you won’t sell it! And the same place applies to trying to… Obviously it’s all very well coming up with new standards for this and new standards for that but getting people to adopt it is the hard bit. Obviously she talked about that, she talked about education but you need to believe in it to make that happen.

Paul: Talking of education is another example of something that applies to pretty much most things. You know, whether it is getting approval for design or explaining to clients why performance matters. You know, we need to get so much better at educating clients. The other thing I really liked as well was the “Never work in a vacuum bit.” Which again, I think applies to pretty much anything, not just standards. So, really good.

Marcus: I agree, yes, good to talk. Interview!

Paul: Yes, stroke interview, yes. One of the things that she did, one of the things that people might want to check out on the back of her that has popped into my mind is that she talked about getting inspiration for your standards and looking elsewhere for them. And it made me think about Jeremy Keiths design principles not Jeremy’s design principles but he’s got a page of loads of organisations different design principles, which is a type of standard. So I will put a link in the show notes to that, in fact I think it’s quite easy to remember. It’s No one can ever spell adactio, so it’s A D A C T I O .com. That’s got loads of principles from Google through to Twitter through to everybody else. It’s really good, lots of inspiration there. Cool, next up we’ve got Teacup AdWords. Which is an AdWords campaign management thingy. I’m good at this aren’t I!

Marcus: They’d appreciate you calling it a thingy!

Paul: No, Dean is lovely. He’ll understand! I’m sure he would refer to it as a thingy too. So is to help effectively manage your AdWords campaigns because let’s be honest, to do a proper job with AdWords you need to be willing to commit hours every month. Obviously if you are not willing to do a proper job then what’s the point, you’re just throwing money down the drain. So that means like checking it daily to see how it is performing, making weekly updates and optimising it every month and it’s a pain in the arse. You got to find new keywords, you’ve got to build landing pages, you’ve got to hunt for keywords that are actually good value and uncover opportunities. Depending on your account you could be spending 20 hours or more on a single campaign. But Teacup is designed to make all of that easy. It is designed to really do all of that for you, to cut down the amount of management time to really a matter of minutes, it’s incredibly straightforward. All you need to do is answer a handful of questions about what you do and Teacup will find relevant keywords, it will build landing pages. But it will also handle everything else like keyword discovery, testing various variations of your ads, all the optimisation, it does the whole lot. Which is just witchcraft in my humble opinion! They are currently running a limited invitation to a beta, so they are still kind of exploring how best to do it. So you can be actively involved in shaping the direction of the project. Dean is only looking for a few people to do this but he is increasing that all of the time, rolling it out all the time. You can find out more about that by going to Teacup Analytics/AdWords.


Marcus: Hmmm.

Paul: This is kinda quite exciting.

Marcus: Yes, it is. I know why you think it’s exciting.

Paul: So we’ve got Chris Scott doing a talk!

Marcus: On the podcast!

Paul: Is this only the second time this has ever happened?

Marcus: I think so and you wouldn’t believe the whining that went on to get him to do this!

Paul: Really?

Marcus: (Laughter) He felt like he had to but he didn’t want to do it but…

Paul: Well that surprises me for a couple of reasons, ’right? One is that he was incredibly good. I think it was a really good little talk. Two, what’s he complaining about it was only six minutes! Even made the 10 minute minimum!

Marcus: (Laughter) I pointed that out to him because of course I had to edit it! I pointed that out and he said something along the lines of “Short but sweet” or you know…

Paul: Some ballshit.

Marcus: … “It’s quality not quantity,” that kind of stuff.

Paul: I have to say, mind, it is good. And it’s really funny, it’s really bizarre because… So what he is doing he is talking about card sorting and he’s called it “Reviving a neglected UX design tool.” And it was really funny because I was literally just thinking about this before he submitted it. Because I’ve been going through my website and looking at old articles and I came across one about card sorting and thoughts “Ah, I haven’t done card sorting for years!” And I got really quite excited again about it and using it and then here he comes saying… great minds think alike. We have worked together too long. Basically.

Marcus: Indeed.

Paul: So yeah, Chris is, if you don’t know, is the managing director of Headscape so he co-founded Headscape with myself and Marcus. Which, as he likes to put it, means that he has to do the stuff that nobody else wants to do. Apparently that’s what being a managing director is in his head. I thought it was to provide leadership but apparently not!

Marcus: He does do that as well.

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: As I think you will hear from the talk he is an excellent facilitator of workshops. He is just so thorough.

Paul: I know, I don’t know understand that. W e could not have more diametrically opposed approaches to workshops because, like, as he says in his talk he spends hours preparing and working out everything and having everything perfect beforehand. Where I just rock up and make it up as I go along! I probably shouldn’t say that should I really.

Marcus: Hire Headscape, not Paul Boag! (Laughter)

Paul: Yeah, not Paul Boag.

Marcus: Hire us both, there you go.

Paul: Pay us twice. Hire us to work on a project together, it’s been a little while hasn’t it?

Marcus: Yes, we could do with another one… World out there listening.

Paul: Yeah, although I’ve literally just contacted Chris just before he went away on holiday with a lead of a client that I am working with that I think could do with Headcapes help as well.

Marcus: Lovely.

Paul: So yeah, there’s that, which is good. But no, yeah, but if you are out there reunite the old band!

Marcus: Yeah, definitely. It’s always great when the band gets back together.

Paul: Yeah, it always works really well when there’s… Take That, when they came back together better than ever before!

Marcus: Exactly, maybe they are the exception but it’s normally good for a little while. Then we can have some time off again, then we come back together. It’s like, yeah, farewell tours.

Paul: Yeah. Does that mean one of us is about to die, I don’t know. Although, if we take the Take That analogy I am Robbie Williams, which is really quite disturbing. Although…

Marcus: In so many ways, yes Paul.

Paul: Hmmm, it is. But it’s better than being Vin Diesel or whatever I was in the last season. At least Robbie’s got hair.

Marcus: This is true.

Paul: Okay, right, shall we play Chris’ talk?

Marcus: Let’s do it.

Paul: Shouldn’t take long!

Card sorting – reviving a neglected UX design tool

Play talk at: 35:01 – I used to do card sorting, but I’ve increasingly neglected it in recent years. Recently I took a fresh look at the technique, gave it another try and haven’t looked back since. I’m loving what I’ve been getting from it and its great to see how clients have engaged with it.

Chris Scott: Card sorting – reviving a neglected UX design tool
Chris is managing director of Headscape which means he has to do the stuff no-one else wants to do. Fortunately, he’s organised enough to be able to spend a lot of his time working on client projects – running workshops, interviewing stakeholders, working out how to make digital work for clients, and doing analytics. Visit Chris’s agency at

Over recent years I’ve increasingly neglected card sorting as part of the process of starting up new projects. When we are starting a project we do all the usual discovery stuff, we’ll kick-off workshop where we user journey map, discuss high-level navigation subjects and then we dive off into wire framing key pages. All good stuff. Working out information architecture has usually involved a back-and-forth process between the UX designer and the client but done after the initial project workshop. I used to do card sorting but it just seems to have become a forgotten tool for a while. Maybe I just got lazy and didn’t prepare well enough or maybe I wasn’t setting things up right. A year or so ago I took a fresh look at my lacklustre use of card sorting and gave it another try and I haven’t looked back since. I am loving what we have been getting from it and it is great to see how clients have engaged with it. So what is different? What am I doing differently?

To start with I’m not using online tools or software tools, you know the sort of thing, optimal sort, simple card sort. They can be fun and the analysis tools can be great if you are getting inputs from a lot of users. What I wanted was to make rapid progress with organising website architecture at project kick-off workshops and the tools really didn’t seem to fit the bill for that. What I found is that people seem to love having actual physical cards that they can move around. So what about approaches? Closed or open sorts? In practice what I am actually doing are what I have called semi closed sorts. So what do I mean by that? Well, I introduce a workshop session by proposing some top level categories, having to do this forces me to do some homework so I have started to build an initial view in my mind at this stage. That’s okay, by putting something out there you’ll force responses from workshop participants, that’s a good thing. Usually this session will immediately follow a session or sessions, on users, user segments and user journeys so everyone at the workshop should be warmed up with their brains fully engaged. So what I do is propose some initial top level categories, we discuss those as a whole workshop and usually you can develop some sort of consensus on a starting point for the card sort. So coming back to the term I used, semi-closed, what do I mean? Well, I allow our workshop participants to change things during the sort if they want. So they have got a starting point but they can change. The process of sorting is a test of the validity of the top-level categories that we agreed earlier. So if they are found wanting they can be changed and I allow them, I allow participants to change as they go.

Okay, so how do I organise the workshop? First of all teams. I always divide workshops into at least two teams. Having teams always introduces a bit of competitive edge, that’s a good thing. Having teams rather than individuals means that there is discussion and debate, again, that’s all good. I’ll come back to teams again later. What about the cards? So I was saying I didn’t use software cards, I always produce a starter set of cards. This is a good discipline as a facilitator because again it forces me to do some valuable homework. Also it means you get a card sorting exercise up and running really fast. Encourage participants to reword cards as they go, encourage them to use a reject pile, encourage them to add new cards. What about card technologies? What I do is I print my starter set of cards text on sticky address labels. Participants have then got to create the actual cards by sticking those labels onto Post-it notes. It might seem like a really trivial point but the process of making cards in this way, even though it only takes a second or so, means that someone in the team has had to actually spend the second or so looking at the text on the card. I don’t know, I’ve not got any scientific evidence but it seems to help. Teams can organise as they stick or do all the sticking and then organise. Whichever approach they use the process of having labelled post-its to move around inevitably simulates discussions. Use big wall spaces if you can find them. Big vertical surfaces are best but sometimes clients are precious about their walls in which case you will have to make do with a big table. The best fit comes at the end of the process when you need to get each team to look at the outputs of the other teams. Then get each team to make a brief pitch of their differences, so the things that they have identified that are different to what the other teams are suggesting or proposing. As a facilitator it is your job to keep the discussions and arguments focused on the users and user journeys you have analysed earlier. Workshop participants will often lapse back to their own issues and concerns rather than the needs of users. You need to keep challenging them on how the architecture they are proposing will help users to achieve what they want. You might not end up with total consensus, in which case someone will need to make some editorial decisions but you will have surfaced a lot of issues, generated a lot of buy-in from participants and you should be close to a workable architecture.

Paul: So there you go! Chris Scott has been on the podcast!

Marcus: I know, it’s great isn’t it. Well, you know he inspired me too. I was doing card sorting with our American client on Monday. Two days ago.

Paul: Oh!

Marcus: He reinvigorated my interest in it as well. Because what happened was, because when I was listening to the talk earlier on today, I realised why I fell out of love of it was because I kept trying to do it with students who didn’t really care, is the bottom line. And it was all completely open, open card sorting is “Here you are, here’s a deck of cards, sort them out into groups.” Whereas closed card sorting is “This is the top level navigation for a site, here’s a deck of cards put them in each one.” Chris is saying that… start off with the idea of the top but you can change it if you want to, which makes a lot of sense. So that’s why, I just found I got useless results but I think it was just because I was working with people that weren’t really bought into it. But it worked a treat with the law firm that we were working with on Monday, yes, two days ago.

Paul: I think, you know, different situations require different approaches. I mean I can imagine some people listening to Chris going “Oh, I don’t know about that, you’re leading people by setting top-level sections.” And yes, I guess he is really but sometimes it’s necessary, I think, to stimulate discussion because people find it much easier to respond to something than they do to start from scratch. If you say, you know, “Here’s a blank page get on with it.” They go “Err.” But if you show them something they will quite happily rip it apart!

Marcus: Yes, it’s also about getting something useful at the end of it. We had a huge group over these last couple of days and we divided them into five teams. Now, if we made it completely open, alright, maybe not for a law firm because there is a standard structure for law firms but let’s say there wasn’t that, we could have ended up with five completely different potential structures and you are like “Well, what use is that?” So if you guide people to begin with it means that you are more likely to get something useful at the end of it, and that’s what this is all about really. It’s also about them having fun, feeling part of the workshop rather than just sitting back listening to me waffle on. Doing stuff is really helpful and it was great.

Paul: It’s a chance to educate and engage really. And people… You get buy-in as well from getting clients doing this kind of stuff. The other thing that I think I am quite keen is this works really well with something like a top task analysis exercise. You know, if you’ve gathered a whole load of tasks that users want to complete or a load of questions that they want answering it’s a good way of rolling, rationalising those into some kind of information architecture and some kind of structure which works really well. The other thing that I liked that Chris said which I thought was a good idea and I had never thought about doing is the idea of if you’ve got multiple teams and they come up with different approaches getting them to pitch why they have gone with the way they have gone as a way of kind of structuring, providing a structured discussion. So I quite liked that.

Marcus: Yeah, the way we got them each to… You’re basically pitching why you’ve taken a different route, maybe, to what has been expected. We did that with each of the five teams we had. And while they’re talking Leigh and I were kind of pulling together everything into the next stage of the workshop, was for us to work on IA, taking on board all of the things that they had done. So it informed our work, it informed the next step really well. And that was good. I was impressed. Well done Chris.

Paul: So the way that Chris and you are using it is as more of a facilitation tool rather than a user research tool if that makes sense.

Marcus: Yeah, we are working with a client rather than sitting down with users.

Paul: I mean it does work with users as well but you are right, you can… if you don’t have an engaged group of users it can feel like pulling teeth. The other thing, of course you can do, is qualitative card sorting where you actually just open up your card sorting to a large number of people online. Like, say, all your Facebook followers or all your Twitter followers, and see whether any common trends come out of something like that. So it really is quite a versatile tool but it is knowing how to use it in the right way at the right time. It’s like all these things isn’t it really?

Marcus: Definitely.

Paul: Okay, so, I think we are doing really well. I think this is going to be a short show. That’s probably because we are both…

Marcus: It suits me today Paul.

Paul: We just want it over don’t we! Yeah.

Marcus: Yeah, then I can just go and lie down somewhere.

Paul: So, I did want to say before we do your joke and wrap up the show that I still have three slots left, ’right? So I need three more people to submit talks. Now, you might think “Well, three is not many, is not with me doing it because it will be gone by the time that it actually gets round to it.” But I’ve had three now for several weeks despite mentioning it on the show multiple times. So you’ve all gone quiet on me, get off your arse, give me a talk!

Marcus: Well, I have seen Mr Leigh Howles notes. He just hasn’t recorded it yet.

Paul: Well, I suspect he is not alone in that. So I am telling everybody off. It’s always good to tell your listeners off! Especially when you want them to do something for you, for free at that! I tell you what…

Marcus: Its fame and fortune, that’s what it is. Fame in inverted comas, is what it is.

Paul: Really!? There’s not that many people listen to the show! That’s why people can’t be bothered. I tell you what, I’ll give you… If you submit a talk and you get on the show in the last three slots I’ll give you a copy of one of my books. A physical copy, I will post it to you and sign… No, I won’t sign it because then you won’t want it! Pristinely wrapped, so there you go. Yeah. Because I need to fill up these spaces, so now you can’t accuse me of not giving anything. Of course now everybody else who has been on the show is going to be really resentful that they are not getting a book.

Marcus: Hmmm, where is my damn book, Paul! ’Cause I’ve been on the show.

Paul: Have I still not given you a copy of user experience revolution?

Marcus: I don’t have a copy, nope!

Paul: I thought I sent you one?

Marcus: Not to an address that I frequent. (Laughter)

Paul: Oh well, hard cheese.

Marcus: You don’t care!

Paul: No, not in the slightest! All right, Marcus, what’s your joke?

Marcus: Well, I’ve been told in, again, the boagworld slack channel that I have to tell this joke from Aslan, Aslan ???, But I don’t think it’s quite works. But I am going to try it anyway.

Paul: Oh, okay.

Marcus: So, why do Swedish warships have barcodes on the sides?

Paul: It’s going to be something to do with IKEA.

Marcus: No. So that when they return to port they can scandenavian. They can scan – did avian,.

Paul: Scan – D – Navy – in. No, that works!

Marcus: Scan D Navy in. Yes, that’s what it was, but it was more “an”. I was like, Scan the Navy an? But yes.

Paul: No, Scandinav – i – in.

Marcus: Scandinavi – in.

Paul: No, that works! It’s not funny but it works!

Marcus: There you go, I did as I was told.

Paul: Yes, you don’t argue with the sac channel. Slack channel. Right, that’s it. Thank you very much for listening and we will be back again next week when we might be coherent!

Marcus: Bye.