In the last article we worked on some core information architecture concepts and how they can and should be applied to your learning catalog.  In this article we’re going to focus on specific techniques which are useful for organizing your catalog in a way that users will understand.

High and Mighty

Before we get to the process of defining (or validating) a hierarchy to organize your courses into, it’s important to understand the goal of creating the structure and the reasonable expectations. First, the goal is to get the high-level structure right.  This means that we’ll want to get the hierarchies we want to allow and their children for the first few levels nailed down.  These are the levels where the wrong turns are the most critical and the most difficult to recover from, because you’ll have many steps to get back to these decisions.  Each of the decisions at the lower levels will be so close to the final information that they’re likely to be more right and transparent and are inherently easier to navigate back from.

Second, our expectation should be that we’re trying to create a start.  There will be new courses and courses that are retired from the catalog.  We shouldn’t feel compelled to do the process below with every course.  There will be plenty of changes that would quickly invalidate our testing if we decided we had to cover every course.

Card Sort – Open

One of the most well established and effective approaches for getting a broadly usable organization structure is to hand a stack of index cards with a sampling of the courses on them, to a set of students and have them go to town with creating their own categories.  The sampling of classes is typically on one color of index card and the students are given the opportunity to create the headings on a different color of index card.  (By the way, post it notes work just as well as index cards if you’re so inclined.)

The process will be completely foreign to most students and will cause a bit of agitation, but generally this goes away after a minute or two of doing the exercise  (because they’ve never done it). Once one or two index cards are up on the board, however, it gets easier.

During the process, you’ll want to facilitate with questions about large groups (for example, those having more than seven items – it is possible those need to be split).  Similarly, you want to encourage them to collapse any groups that only have one or two items unless you believe there are many more courses in that area than the sample suggests.

This process is repeated with several students or ideally groups of students.  Each group will likely come up with a similar structure, and often they’ll create a structure that mirrors the departmental structure in the organization which may be right, but you may want multiple hierarchies to access your content.  To that end you may want to nudge some of the students to create hierarchies based on the processes in the organization, value chains, or some other way that the organization sees itself.

The final step at the end of the open card sorts is to try to combine the different answers from the different groups into a set of hierarchies.  These hierarchies are prospective hierarchies to be reviewed and approved.

Functional or Divisional

When asked to organize organizational information, including courses, the natural bias is to organize them by the department that is interested in them or wants them to be trained.  However, sometimes it’s more important to think of the job being done than by the organization that wants the training to be provided.  There are other ways of creating hierarchies that may provide value too.  Look for alternate possible structures and motivate the students taking part in the exercise to try to see if they can make them work.

You can sometimes kick start this process by requiring a non-traditional top level or top few levels.  For instance, you might require that the top level be customer facing, community facing, vendor facing, or internal.  This disruption to the natural tendency to break by division, business unit and department may be enough to get a more realistic approach to organizing rather that regurgitating what is already present.  You may also want to pick an ambiguously owned course in the catalog to help force thinking about the problems of department based organization.  I like picking on security topics because most people will think facilities before they’ll think about information technology and information technology likely has more courses on security than facilities.

Card Sort – Closed

With a set of student-supplied categories in hand, you turn the problem over for validation.  Instead of starting a new group of students with a blank page and a set of index cards with courses on them, you start them with the structure you have or you have come up with through the open card sorts.  Then you ask them to file the courses into the structure.  You keep score as to whether the structure is unambiguous and easy to use by counting the number of cards that couldn’t be filed and especially counting the number of cards placed in the “wrong” category.  The “wrong” category is a different one than your open card sort would have put the card into.

If you get too many misses, you’ll need to adapt the structure and do the closed card sort again.  If you do enough of the sorts, you’ll find an organization that is easy for your students to find their courses.


Robert Bogue is the author of 22 books on technology, a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and internationally renowned speaker.  He consults with organizations to implement SharePoint, software vendors to integrate their software to SharePoint, and offers SharePoint training materials to organizations.  You can find out more about his materials from or follow his blog at