When you’re doing research there will be several times when you find yourself overwhelmed with ideas. This can happen at the start when you’ve just done a brainstorm or mind map, for example, or later on after you’ve read lots of books or articles, or carried out interviews and observations.
Those of you taking Design Studies will no doubt get fed up with us mentioning things like mind maps, post-it notes and index cards but trust me, we don’t mention them because we have shares in the companies. They really are useful tools for getting stuff out of your head, or off a piece of paper, and into a format that you can play around with.
A typical use of cards is to classify research from reading and/or interviews or other methods. Students on the Design Studies modules do various types of research like this in level 2, and then continue with them in both studio projects and for the final year dissertation where they may be interviewing or observing lots of people, and reading a great deal of information from a variety of sources.
There is a temptation to use the latest technology to organise things, and I for one am constantly using various databases, cloud-based tools and different note-taking software but, at the end of the day, it’s the analogue tools that tend to win out. Make the stationery shop your friend, and go nowhere, and read nothing, without a collection of sticky notes, index cards and highlighter pens to hand.
Cards versus notebooks
Traditionally, because that’s the way we’re “taught” or rather expected to do it at school, we tend to collect this information in notebooks and ringbinders. But collecting isn’t the same as organising and at some point you need to get it out of the note book. Card sorting is a great method for doing this but it’s also very handy for simply reminding yourself of what you found out (one of the reasons why mind mapping is useful, in fact).
In fact, some people don’t bother with notebooks at all, preferring to write all their notes on cards so they don’t need to transfer things later, and so they can spend idle hours sifting through things and creating new links. This way of working even has a name: “the hipster PDA”, where PDA means “personal digital assistant”, the sort of thing Palm used to make.
At its simplest, a hipster PDA is just some cards held together with a bulldog clip or elastic band. if you want to get advanced you can keep them in an envelope… Search for hipster PDAs online and you’ll even find templates to print out for different kinds of information.
There’s no “right” way to do it, and you shouldn’t try to copy someone else’s method but instead develop your own. Whatever method you choose has to work, rather than look pretty in photographs.
The card sort
So how does the card sort work? Well it’s really very simple.
You take your cards, spread them out, and begin to organise them in to categories or themes. Imagine you’ve been looking at how people behave in a public space like a bus station. You’ve noticed a group of kids speaking very loudly and generally annoying other people. You’ve noticed some small children chasing each other around. You’ve noticed people from different backgrounds outside in the same place smoking but not talking to each other. You’ve seen elderly people chatting quite happily to other people of the same age who they apparently don’t know. And you’ve seen people sitting down but leaving an empty seat between themselves and the next person.
So how would you organise that? By age? By behaviour? By response from other people? Or in lots of different ways? Maybe one card belongs in two categories? Wait – I said it was really very simple!
There are a few things to remember: the first is that because everything’s on cards you can change your mind. It’s what we call an “iterative process” – you do it over and over again until it feels right. You can write out more than one card for each observation – you could number all your cards and give duplicates the same number so you remember they refer to the same thing. You can combine groups and categories. But part of the value of this process is not the actual grouping, it’s the thinking, the remembering, the connections you’re making in your head. The process has added value if you do it with other people so you can explain things to them as you’re doing it, or even let them do it and watch how they make sense of things. Or you can do it alone but in public, say in a shared studio space. Putting your thoughts up on the wall and letting people look at them and ask you questions is a good way to stop your research being an inward process, like talking to yourself, and instead becoming a shared process, sharing your findings and ideas with others, perhaps even defending them and being challenged on them.
In her description of her own research methods, Qin Han mentioned her love of wallpaper. When she was doing her PhD she put her research on the wall, moved it around, let others look at it, even write their own comments on it. It’s a very, very useful method.
Making thinking visual
In effect as well as sorting your ideas and reminding yourself of what you found out, and helping you make links, you are thinking visually.
Take photographs of your visual thinking and add some sort of tags to your cards once you’ve categorised them. An easy way to do this is to colour code them either by drawing a quick stroke with a highlighter pen or by grouping them together and drawing over the top as in the image below:
Then you can start to organise them in ways that make sense to you
A box, for example, with tags.
Or maybe put them in envelopes with the title of the group written clearly on the front
Again, remember that to a large extent it doesn’t matter where you group them because the act of doing this process has probably had the effect of helping you memorise a lot of what you discovered so that when it comes to doing something with it all, whether it’s designing a new product or brand identity, or writing a report or dissertation, you won’t need to refer to the cards all that much except for specific information like quotes and bibliographic references.
Card sorting as a design process
Card sorting is a technique that’s used in areas of design such as developing web sites. There are quite a few videos of the process on YouTube (just search for “card sorting”) but even if you’re not interested in web design they’re still worth looking at for the basic techniques.
The video below is a good example of how card sorting can be used after an “info dump” such as a brainstorm or mind mapping session or, as here, writing down all the different areas of activity the company is involved in. The method’s useful in areas such as service design and I’ve even used it with groups of lecturers to help develop new modules and courses. One of its advantages is it helps people see how seemingly different things are very similar, or that some things they value are actually not that important or core to the organisation. The key, as explained in the video, is not to think from the point of view of the “insider” – the designer or the company employee – but as an outsider. I once used a technique like this with people from a well-known company to help them develop a new web site. They wanted to organise it the way they organised their company but once they’d run through this in less than 30 minutes they had a site structure that reflected the way their customers saw them, which wasn’t even close to their original ideas!
So keep the technique in mind. It’s useful to keep up your sleeve for when you have lots of information but no idea where to go with it, or when you’re working with clients or customers to come up with ideas or answers. And remember to get together that simple kit: sticky notes, index cards and highlighters. So much less expensive than a laptop…