Sort it out: Using card sorts to delve into your audiences

By Posted in - Audience Research on March 23rd, 2020 0 Comments Boxes of different colours and sizes in the background. Text reads "Sort it out: Using card sorts to delve into your audiences"

A card sort is exactly how it sounds. We ask our audience to sort a bunch of cards into categories that most make sense to them. And – surprise, surprise – I’m a big fan of them. 

It’s a really simple way of gathering insights and it is incredibly easy to complete. It also gives you space to be creative in the way that you define your categories, how your audiences define these categories for you, and the cards that you create to be sorted.

We use them for many reasons: identifying brand perceptions, highlighting information needs over time, uncovering top tasks, and so on. I even used card sorting to gather 360 feedback on the individual strengths and opportunities of my working style as part of my annual appraisal workshop. It’s just so versatile. 

Especially since it works both offline (in workshops or focus groups) and online (via card sort sites or systems) very seamlessly. And that seems to be something that can be of real value due to current uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak. It gives us the opportunities to think more creatively about how we gain the audience insights we need at this time in more alternative ways. 

So, where do we begin?

It all starts with questions. What do you want to find out? How will you design your research activities to uncover that? Will this insight be valuable to you? It is by answering these questions that we can move on to labelling the cards and categories. And you can even you use any insights from previous research to inform this. 

WHAT DO AUDIENCES THINK OF US? 

First, think about why you want to know this. And then consider what you will do with these insights once gathered. 

If this is a stakeholder exercise, you might want to gather internal perceptions of what your institution should or should not be presenting to the outside world in order to craft style guidelines, for example. You could use similar categories to measure the perceptions of students, alumni and other external audiences too – and then present comparisons between these. 

It could look something like this: 

University of Pickle is…
University of Pickle is not…
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .

You could even take this one step further to assess attitudes to current/future brand messaging with something like this:

University of Pickle is, and should
continue to be…
University of Pickle is, and
should not continue to be…
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
University of Pickle is not,
but should be…
University of Pickle is not, and
should continue not to be…
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .

It is important when choosing cards to measure brand perceptions that you do not just include positive words or adjectives that primarily fit your idea of the brand. We are looking to uncover the true thoughts of these audiences – both positive and negative. 

Second, think about your audience. Whose perceptions do you want to find out? Who are your priority audiences? Are there certain audiences that you want to change the perceptions of? If gathering perceptions from multiple audiences, think about how you might tailor your communications to more effectively engage them on their desired brand values.

WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE? 

Card sorts can be used to identify unique characteristics of your institution – and having limitations on the cards that can be sorted can be incredibly effective in achieving this. 

To highlight why certain countries are distinctive from other study locations and the priority brand values of each, we asked stakeholders to assign brand values to each country. 

Five flags of different countries with brand values cards assigned to each.

We even limited the number of cards that could define a country to just four or five. And the best part? Cards could only be used once. You’ll see loud debates around why one country should deserve a certain brand value as opposed to others –  so use card limitations like this to encourage a discussion around the truly distinctive parts of your institution or location.

WHAT DO AUDIENCES NEED TO DO?

Card sorts are great companions for uncovering top tasks, as well as the sites and seasonal trends that these tasks occur. It’s super easy to set this up too. 

Thinking back to the start, let’s break these three things into questions: 

– What does this audience need to do as a priority?
– Where does this audience complete these top tasks?
– Are there times of the year when these tasks are more critical/less critical?

First, take a list of top tasks (ideally no more than 25) and you can use these as cards for all three activities. The questions above will form the categories that these cards will be sorted into. 

To identify top tasks, you could use something similar to this: 

Important/daily tasks
Not important/daily tasks
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
Important/infrequent tasks
Not important/infrequent tasks
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .

Here, you will not only uncover top tasks but the prevalence of these tasks in the day-to-day life of the audience you are researching. It may be useful to add the option for your audience to add their own cards to this activity in case you miss any important ones. 

The data from this card sort can help with prioritising the content on your website (or whichever platform) to make sure that the top important/daily tasks are easily accessible at all times – and that users can find the right information at the right times and in the right places.

 

It’s only by knowing the sheer amount of research methods out there, that we can dive into our mental banks to come up with creative alternatives. To build your research knowledge, the online content strategy course is the place to start.

We are always open to trying to gather research in new, innovative ways. In the current climate of the coronavirus outbreak, we’ve certainly encountered some challenges with continuing on with face-to-face research methods. Card sorts really do go hand-in-hand with this situation that we find ourselves in. And it means that that all research does not necessarily need to be put on hold. 

We are also always open for (now virtual) chats about new ways to approach these things and how we can help, so reach out.

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