blank stack of cards
PHOTO: Kate Trysh

For years, I had run card-sorting workshops. To keep track on the cards, I used to hand out a sheet that contained all the names of the cards. One exercise involved deciding what cards to use when designing a classification for a homepage. I wanted people to prioritize, so I asked people to choose no more than 10 cards and to give their most important card (class) a vote of 10 and so on.

There were 150 cards and people were supposed to sort and group these and then finally choose their top 10. But some people started cheating. They went straight to the sheet that contained the list and began choosing from there. Once I’d notice that I’d go up to them and explain that sorting and grouping was an essential first step in the process.

They needed to sort. They needed to group the cards because that was what I was teaching. That was what I believed. That was what I had been trained on. And I had created 15 sets of 150 cards each. Did they not realize how much effort went into all that? How much printing? How much tearing of serrated edges? How much neatly stacking and wrapping in elastic bands? My set of cards were my pride and joy and they were going to sort them whether they wanted to or not.

Except that more and more people didn’t want to. And some were quite stubborn. They wouldn’t accept my arguments. They challenged my dogma. “You can’t scan a list of 150 things and choose wisely,” I said. “There’s years of research to prove that you can only scan about seven things.” And yet they were scanning 150 things and the choices they were making seemed to be roughly the same choices that those who went through the much longer process of physically sorting were getting.

So, one morning I did something brave and risky. I left my box of cards in my hotel room and headed to the workshop armed just with sheets of paper containing the list of 150 things you might be interested in if you were planning to go on holiday to Ireland.

When I calculated the scores, I found that in the workshop I just did with the sheets I got essentially the same top 10 as in the previous workshop using the cards. Except that this process was four to five times quicker. The next workshop I tried using the list. It worked. It kept working.

Then someone else said: “Why don’t you do this as a survey?” Another crazy idea. You can’t list 150 things in a survey and ask people to quickly scan and choose just 10. It won’t work. But it did. Since 2006, there have been more than 400 Top Tasks surveys, with over 300,000 people voting in more than 30 countries and languages.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is that the best way to design, develop, innovate or discover is through use. Get the thing used and observe and learn from the use. Keep your mind open. Design and evolve through use. Design with people. Don’t let the effort you invested in something become a ball and chain. Don’t let your expectations, attitudes and opinions get in the way of the evidence. Stay open, connected and constantly evolving within the network.