What’s wrong with crowdsourcing the design of public websites?

A blog post from Sunlight Labs on “Redesigning the FCC: Getting Organized” suggests an experiment that employs a public card-sorting program, websort.net, to help redesign the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website.  The FCC has a notoriously convoluted web site, hard to navigate and hard to search.  Sunlight Labs invites anyone interested in helping the FCC to this open card-sorting activity, which organizes about 60 terms into categories related to the FCC. But is a public web sort the right approach to redesigning a government website?

Should we crowdsource the design of a public website?

Here are some considerations: –

  • First, the success of any design process depends on who sits at the table. Site designers have not succeeded over the years by roping in anyone who happens to be around. Rather, carefully identifying the right participants for any design activity is very important. Engaging busy professionals and bureaucrats in order to derive the maximum impact with the minimum effort is a tricky business. One of the most cutting critiques of the Wikipedia has been that the editorial perspective is overwhelmingly white-male twenty-something—not necessarily the authority of choice for everyone else.
  • Second, open processes tend to be very time-consuming, which works in your favor for some kinds of crowdsourcing but not for selecting terms and categories. Unless the sample is large and controlled, the emerging pattern from crowdsourced card sorting may not be helpful because experts with limited time will be overrun by people with lots of time and a fast hand on the keyboard, no matter how much or how little they know. Some types of crowdsourcing (such as prediction markets) work because the errors of ignorant participants cancel each other out and allow the experts to win out—but card sorting is entirely different and results in just chaos.
  • Third, it would be much quicker for the FCC to suggest a model for organizing its content based on its expertise than to crowdsource the design. There are standard ways to organize things, including website content, which people can learn even if they are not entirely natural. We learn about brand, price, size, color, material, and fit because they help us find the stuff we want to buy, not necessarily because there is a shopping gene in our DNA.
  • Fourth, the users of these sites, such as broadcasters, regulators, website publishers, and ordinary people, are not always interested in the same things. The FCC will have to comply with legislative and executive branch imperatives that may be of little interest to many people in the crowd.

A better way to approach website design and redesign focuses on the backend nomenclature—buckets and categories, which are called facets and vocabularies. These form the basis of a useful taxonomy.

So when can crowd-sourcing be used effectively? If the FCC engaged in the process of designing facets and vocabularies, the crowd could be useful as a follow-up. First, it can be helpful in validating a design. After all, the test of a taxonomy is whether it helps people find information. One of the appropriate roles for crowd sourcing in taxonomy is to observe how the users access a collection of items over time, the searches they use, and the click paths they follow. The taxonomy can then be tuned based on how the activity distributes among the categories—splitting and merging categories as warranted.

Another place for crowdsourcing is to allow users to add free-text “tags” to the content. Those tags can then be evaluated to either map them to existing taxonomy categories, or to suggest changes to the taxonomy. In this case the crowd and the taxonomy work together in synergy. Users typically add a tag to only a fraction of the pages, so in most cases these terms will be synonyms or equivalents to existing categories.

Finally, a card-sorting exercise can be useful after the field is carefully constrained by the experts who know the site. The true test of any card-sorting activity is whether people can actually find what they are looking for afterward. Mapping a tag as a synonym of an existing taxonomy category, effectively applies that tag to all the content already in that taxonomy category. This synergy is one method that can help improve access to information.

Here are several techniques that are intuitive and natural for people to use with little or no training, allowing them to validate a taxonomy. These techniques are much faster than open card sorts, and provide results that are easier to interpret.

  • Classifying some content
  • Conducting walk-throughs
  • Closed card sorting

Classifying some content

In this exercise, people are presented with a representative subset of content from the site and are asked to tag it. You can select it randomly or try to include examples of the site’s primary content types, as well as content you think may be hard to tag, find, or use. Plotting the number of items tagged into each taxonomy category, you should expect to see 80% of the content fall into 20% of the categories.

Conducting Taxonomy Walk-Throughs

One-on-one and group presentations to stakeholders showing and explaining or walking through the taxonomy, is an effective way to extract specific comments and sometimes overall approval. During walk-throughs, standard questions should be asked about the category structure, as well as about problematic categories, to gather feedback on the taxonomy. Delphi walk-throughs are done using a stack of cards. It is not a set of raw terms, however, as in the FCC exercise. Instead, the cards are already marked with categories chosen by the experts. Reviewers are asked to mark changes to the category labels on the cards. Each subsequent reviewer is given their walk-through using the cards with the label mark-up from the previous session. The process usually stabilizes after a few sessions, indicating that the categories are appropriate. According to Dave Cooksey, Founder and Principal of saturdave, 20 sessions will usually result in a consensus taxonomy revision, and this method provides results without any further analysis.

Closed Card Sorting

Closed card sorting, where categories are in predefined buckets, can be used to test whether stakeholders and end users consistently sort categories into the correct taxonomy facets. The categories to test should be a set of important topics, such as the most frequently searched words and phrases from the search engine logs. The test can be done using actual cards, or using a simple grid with categories to be tested down the left column and the taxonomy facets across the top. Paper card sorts work well enough for up to 20 trials.

Websort.net is a good tool when you need a larger, distributed closed-card sort test. If users can’t map terms to the categories, the designers will know that they have to adjust their design. But our experience shows that pre-analysis captures about 80% of the common categories and use cases. Sunlight Labs has undertaken a commendable task in seeking to improve the FFC web site’s layout. By carrying out a card sort too quickly, they’ll just get their signals crossed. Performing some professional taxonomy work first will channel public efforts in the right direction.

Submitted by – Joseph A. Busch, Founder and Principal, Taxonomy Strategies,  Sept  8, 2009

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