Snapshot of card sorting exercise

User testing in a lightweight way

At first blush, designing a new landing page seems pretty straightforward: compile some handy and useful resources, write clear and succinct background information, and top it off with an engaging banner that encompasses the topic in one definitive image.

With the new Ontario.ca/health design, however, we knew we could do things differently: we had an opportunity to use research and testing to create a design that really met user needs.

Creating an information architecture

As Corey mentioned, we’re putting the user first as we develop the new Ontario.ca. We started the project off by looking at the Ontario.ca web analytics to find out what kind of health care information people were searching and accessing most. From this data, we discovered a few things that people were really interested in:

We used this data as a baseline as we started to figure out how to organize the Ontario.ca/health landing page, but we knew it wasn’t enough. As we created our information architecture for the page, we wanted to directly involve users to make sure that were not only using the right kinds of words that were relatable to Ontarians, but also categorize things effectively so that everyone could find the information they were looking for easily, in one glance.

That’s where card sorting came into play.

Using card sorting to organize information

From this data, we discovered that people were really interested, in addition to a wide variety of other topics, in OHIP, finding a doctor, long-term care, and accessing Telehealth. From this data, we thought what’s a good way to categorize these on the landing page? All of these topics could have been organized into a number of different categories, or maybe could have been treated as its own main category. There were many possibilities of how to present it to people.

Card sorting is a lightweight user-testing method that helps inform and design the information architecture of a webpage. In a card sorting exercise, you ask different participants to organize topics, written out on cards, by grouping them into categories. The process is a little different for everyone, but the point is for users to sort the cards in a way that makes the most sense to them.

One participant’s card sorting results.

The sorting exercise can be done online using special software or free tools, but can easily be done in person with pieces of paper. Doing it in person gives tremendous insight to people’s thoughts and behaviours while they’re looking at the information presented to them. It also gives you the chance to observe participant’s actions and reactions as they’re doing the activity. You can take the opportunity to hear them think aloud so that you’ll understand their underlying reasons for their choices, opinions and motivations.

Card sorting is an easy and incredibly useful user testing method. It opens up doors into understanding how people read and understand your content. After compiling all the groupings from all the user sessions, you can get a pretty good idea of what the hierarchy of content should look like on your page, what content is missing, and if your categories are clear and understandable.

Learning from the exercise

I was lucky to work with Dayna Gorecki from the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care in the card sorting process. Dayna has a breadth of knowledge in communications around health care, so she was able to guide a lot of the work and provide context to much of what we learned.

We learned quite a bit from the exercise, and all of what we learned went into the creation of the Ontario.ca/health page. Here are a few nuggets that we got from card sorting:

  • Ontarians don’t necessarily use the same labels and terminology as the specialists in the field; specialized link titles may mean nothing to a person learning about the subject for the first time.
  • Participants created new categories that were relevant to them: ‘services,’ ‘programs,’ and ‘children and youth.’
  • “What is Telehealth?” was a question that came up often. The new homepage now displays a description of Telehealth on the landing page with a clear explanation and direct access to related phone numbers.
  • “Long-term care” was a term that was seen as too vague and broad. The new homepage now uses the category label “senior care” to direct users to relevant services and programs.
  • “Enrol in Assistive Devices Program” didn’t seem to resonate with participants; it is now updated to: “Get help paying for equipment if you have a physical disability.”
  • Similarly, “Enrol in Ontario Drug Benefit Program” wasn’t clear. It has been updated to a more precise label: “Get coverage for prescription drugs.”

Dayna shared some thoughts on the process after we went through the exercise:

“As OPS employees, we normally arrange webpage content based on our knowledge of the programs and services we provide. However, what makes complete sense to us, might not make sense for the general public.
[Card sorting] was very quick, efficient and simple. You don’t need a fancy setup, or equipment (computers or a lab etc.). No complicated instructions. Just some cards and a space to lay them out however the person sees fit. Having ‘no wrong answers’ really takes the pressure off and just allows people to let it flow naturally.”

Continuing to do user research in many ways

Our work in making health care information easier to access for Ontarians is not done. We’ll continue to do more user research — using card sorting and other methods — to make sure that we’re constantly updating to meet the needs of all our users.

We’ll be sharing more information about our process over the next few weeks, including:

  • New approaches for project governance
  • How we’re thinking about wait times
  • How to make digital immunization records better available to parents

In the meantime, if you’re looking for more information about card sorting, here are a few links to check out:


Jennifer Lee bridges user experience design with front-end development for the Ontario Digital Service. She has been telling stories through photography and the web since 1996.