3 ways you can combine OptimalSort and Chalkmark in your design process

12 min read Ashlea McKay

As UX professionals we know the value of card sorting when building an IA or making sense of our content and we know that first clicks and first impressions of our designs matter. Tools like OptimalSort and Chalkmark are two of our wonderful design partners in crime, but did you also know that they work really well with each other? They have a lot in common and they also complement each other through their different strengths and abilities. Here are 3 ways that you can make the most of this wonderful team up in your design process.

1. Test the viability of your concepts and find out which one your users prefer most

Imagine you’re at a point in your design process where you’ve done some research and you’ve fed all those juicy insights into your design process and have come up with a bunch of initial visual design concepts that you’d love to test.

You might approach this by following this 3 step process:

  • Test the viability of your concepts in Chalkmark before investing in interaction design work
  • Iterate your design based on your findings in Step 1
  • Finish by running a preference test with a closed image based card sort in OptimalSort to find out which of your concepts is most preferred by your users

There are two ways you could run this approach: remotely or in person. The remote option is great for when you’re short on time and budget or for when your users are all over the world or otherwise challenging to reach quickly and cheaply. If you’re running it remotely, you would start by popping images of your concepts in whatever state of fidelity they are up to into Chalkmark and coming up with some scenario based tasks for your participants to complete against those flat designs. Chalkmark is super nifty in the way that it gets people to just click on an image to indicate where they would start out when completing a task. That image can be a rough sketch or a screenshot of a high fidelity prototype or live product — it could be anything! Chalkmark studies are quick and painless for participants and great for designers because the results will show if your design is setting your users up for success from the word go. Just choose the most common tasks a user would need to complete on your website or app and send it out.

Next, you would review your Chalkmark results and make any changes or iterations to your designs based on your findings. Choose a maximum of 3 designs to move forward with for the last part of this study. The point of this is to narrow your options down and figure out through research, which design concept you should focus on. Create images of your chosen 3 designs and build a closed card sort in OptimalSort with image based cards by selecting the checkbox for ‘Add card images’ in the tool (see below).

How to add card images
Turn your cards into image based cards in OptimalSort by selecting the ‘Add card images’ checkbox on the right hand side of the screen.

The reason why you want a closed card sort is because that’s how your participants will indicate their preference for or against each concept to you. When creating the study in OptimalSort, name your categories something along the lines of ‘Most preferred’, ‘Least preferred’ and ‘Neutral’. Totally up to you what you call them — if you’re able to, I’d encourage you to have some fun with it (like I did below) and make your study as engaging as possible for your participants!

Naming your categories for preference testing


Naming your card categories for preference testing with an image based closed card sort study in OptimalSort

Limit the number of cards that can be sorted into each category to 1 and uncheck the box labelled ‘Randomize category order’ so that you know exactly how they’re appearing to participants — it’s best if the negative one doesn’t appear first because we’re mostly trying to figure out what people do prefer and the only way to stop that is to switch the randomization off. You could put the neutral option at the end or in the middle to balance it out — totally up to you.

It’s also really important that you include a post study questionnaire to dig into why they made the choices they did. It’s one thing to know what people do and don’t prefer, but it’s also really important to additionally capture the reasoning behind their thinking. It could be something as simple as “Why did you chose that particular option as your most preferred?” and given how important this context is, I would set that question to ‘required’. You may still end up with not-so helpful responses like ‘Because I like the colors’ but it’s still better than nothing — especially if your users are on the other side of the world or you’re being squeezed by some other constraint! It’s something to be mindful of and remember that studies like these contribute to the large amount of research that goes on throughout a project and are not the only piece of research you’ll be running. You’re not pinning all your design’s hopes and dreams on this one study! You’re just trying to quickly find out what people prefer at this point in time and as your process continues, your design will evolve and grow.

You might also ask the same context gathering question for the least preferred option and consider also including an optional question that allows them to share any other thoughts they might have on the activity they just completed — you never know what you might uncover!

If you were running this in person, you could use it to form the basis for a moderated codesign session. You would start your session by running the Chalkmark study to gauge their first impressions and find out where those first clicks are landing and also have a conversation about what your participants are thinking and feeling while they’re completing those tasks with your concepts. Next, you could work with your participants to iterate and refine your concepts together. You could do it digitally or you could just draw them out on paper — it doesn’t have to be perfect! Lastly, you could complete your codesign session by running that closed card sort preference test as a moderated study using barcodes printed from OptimalSort (found under the ‘Cards’ tab during the build process) giving you the best of both worlds — conversations with your participants plus analysis made easy! The moderated approach will also allow you to dig deeper into the reasoning behind their preferences.

2. Test your IA through two different lenses: non visual and visual

Your information architecture (IA) is the skeleton structure of your website or app and it can be really valuable to evaluate it from two different angles: non-visual and visual. The non-visual elements of an IA are: language, content, categories and labelling and these are great because they provide a clear and clean starting point. There’s no visual distractions and getting that content right is rightfully so a high priority. The visual elements come along later and build upon that picture and help provide context and bring your design to life. It’s a good idea to test your IA through both lenses throughout your design process to ensure that nothing is getting lost or muddied as your design evolves and grows.

Let’s say you’ve already run an open card sort to find out how your users expect your content to be organised and you’ve created your draft IA. You may have also tested and iterated that IA in reverse through a tree test in Treejack and are now starting to sketch up some concepts for the beginnings of the interaction design stages of your work.

At this point in the process, you might run a closed card sort with OptimalSort on your growing IA to ensure that those top level category labels are aligning to user expectations while also running a Chalkmark study on your early visual designs to see how the results from both approaches compare.

When building your closed card sort study, you would set your predetermined categories to match your IA’s top level labels and would then have your participants sort the content that lies beneath into those groups. For your Chalkmark study, think about the most common tasks your users will need to complete using your website or app when it eventually gets released out into the world and base your testing tasks around those. Keep it simple and don’t stress if you think this may change in the future — just go with what you know today.

Once you’ve completed your studies, have a look at your results and ask yourself questions like: Are both your non-visual and visual IA lenses telling the same story? Is the extra context of visual elements supporting your IA or is it distracting and/or unhelpful? Are people sorting your content into the same places that they’re going looking for it during first-click testing? Are they on the same page as you when it’s just words on an actual page but are getting lost in the visual design by not correctly identifying their first click? Has your Chalkmark study unearthed any issues with your IA? Have a look at the Results matrix and the Popular placements matrix in OptimalSort and see how they stack up against your clickmaps in Chalkmark.

Bananacom clickmap
Bananacom ppm


Clickmaps in Chalkmark and closed card sorting results in OptimalSort — are these two saying the same thing?

3. Find out if your labels and their matching icons make sense to users

A great way to find out if your top level labels and their matching icons are communicating coherently and consistently is to test them by using both OptimalSort and Chalkmark. Icons aren’t the most helpful or useful things if they don’t make sense to your users — especially in cases where label names drop off and your website or app homepage relies solely on that image to communicate what content lives below each one e.g., sticky menus, mobile sites and more.

This approach could be useful when you’re at a point in your design process where you have already defined your IA and are now moving into bringing it to life through interaction design. To do this, you might start by running a closed card sort in OptimalSort as a final check to see if the top level labels that you intend to make icons for are making sense to users. When building the study in OptimalSort, do exactly what we talked about earlier in our non-visual vs visual lens study and set your predetermined categories in the tool to match your level 1 labels. Ask your participants to sort the content that lies beneath into those groups — it’s the next part that’s different for this approach.

Once you’ve reviewed your findings and are confident your labels are resonating with people, you can then develop their accompanying icons for concept testing. You might pop these icons into some wireframes or a prototype of your current design to provide context for your participants or you might just test the icons on their own as they would appear on your future design (e.g., in a row, as a block or something else!) but without any of the other page elements. It’s totally up to you and depends entirely upon what stage you’re at in your project and the thing you’re actually designing — there might be cases where you want to zero in on just the icons and maybe the website header e.g., a sticky menu that sits above a long scrolling, dynamic social feed. In an example taken from a study we recently ran on Airbnb and TripAdvisor’s mobile apps, you might use the below image on the left but without the icon labels or you might use the below image on the right that shows the smaller sticky menu version of it that appears on scroll.

TA with header and labels
TA sticky


Screenshots taken from TripAdvisor’s mobile app on March 5, 2019 showing the different ways icons present.

The main thing here is to test the icons without their accompanying text labels to see if they align with user expectations. Choose the visual presentation approach that you think is best but lose the labels!

When crafting your Chalkmark tasks, it’s also a good idea to avoid using the label language in the task itself. Even though the labels aren’t appearing in the study, just using that language still has the potential to lead your participants. Treat it the same way you would a Treejack task — explain what participants have to do without giving the game away e.g., instead of using the word ‘flights’ try ‘airfares’ or ‘plane tickets’ instead.

Choose one scenario based task question for each level 1 label that has an icon and consider including post study questions to gather further context from your participants — e.g., did they have any comments about the activity they completed? Was anything confusing or unclear and if so, what and why?

Once you’ve completed your Chalkmark study and have analysed the results, have a look at how well your icons tested. Did your participants get it right? If not, where did they go instead? Are any of your icons really similar to each other and is it possible this similarity may have led people down the wrong path?

Alternatively, if you’ve already done extensive work on your IA and are feeling pretty confident in it, you might instead test your icons by running an image card sort in OptimalSort. You could use an open card sort and limit the cards per category to just one — effectively asking participants to name each card rather than a group of cards. An open card sort will allow you to learn more about the language they use while also uncovering what they associate with each one without leading them. You’d need to tweak the default instructions slightly to make this work but it’s super easy to do! You might try something like:

Part 1:

Step 1

  • Take a quick look at the images to the left.
  • We’d like you to tell us what you associate with each image.
  • There is no right or wrong answer.

Step 2

  • Drag an image from the left into this area to give it a name.

Part 2:

Step 3

  • Click the title to give the image a name that you feel best describes what you associate that image with.

Step 4

  • Repeat step 3 for all the images by dropping them in unused spaces.
  • When you’re done, click “Finished” at the top right. Have fun!

Test out your new instructions in preview mode on a colleague from outside of your design team just to be sure it makes sense!

So there’s 3 ideas for ways you might use OptimalSort and Chalkmark together in your design process. Optimal Workshop’s suite of tools are flexible, scalable and work really well with each other — the possibilities of that are huge!