Today I learned a new user experience (UIX) design technique. It's for organizing different topics into a few top level menus. In the simplest form, there's closed card sorting.
It starts by creating a card for each topic that the site is going to cover.
With closed card sorting, a set of cards are given to different potential users along with a few pieces of papers with a topic on them, and the users are asked to sort the cards onto the pages based on the topic where it best fits. This gives guidance to site designers as to where to put topics in terms of where the users expect them to find.
Open Card Sorting. To get more pure user feedback on how they visualize topics and categories, the cards can be given to users who put them in piles based on the categories that they imagine they should be organized along. This can reveal a more genuine sense of the mental maps with which users approach the relevant topics. It can also be overwhelming to users and in many cases, produces haphazard sets of logic that users turn to when they get frustrated and just want the exercise to end.
A purer sort might be to give the users a blank set of cards and a few pieces of paper, tell them what the site is about, and ask them to put a major topic on each of a few pieces of paper, and then name and organize the cards. This system does not have a name that I am aware of.
It's easy for these techniques to get out of hand. It's important to remember that they are techniques to reveal the mental maps that people approach a topic with. But the site designer, through careful wording, should be creating navigation and topics that steers users down paths that support the goal of the website. Websites are not libraries or wikis where users are expected to freely browse and learn. Websites usually have a purpose and while knowing the mental maps with which users might first approach the site is useful, it does not necessarily dictate how the site should present its experience.
Stay tuned or an example which illustrates these choices...