Determining Business Processes Using Card Sorting

Card sorting is a pretty well-known technique for working with users to better understand how information should be organised. There are many excellent articles about this available online, and one that I particularly like is “Information design using card sorting” by James Robertson.

Card sorting is a technique we have used many times when working with organisations to define an information architecture for SharePoint, and I find it very useful.

However, as well as doing a lot of information architecture work, we are also helping organisations to implement business processes within SharePoint. Much of this work is focused around Case Management, and implemented in SharePoint using the K2 Case Management Framework.

While working on a bid management system with a customer recently, we had an idea – could a card sorting exercise be used to map out a case management type business process? In particular, could we use a card sort with the end users to map out the stages and actions undertaken as a case progresses? The answer is a resounding yes – it works very well! Here is how we did it.

To keep the language non-technical, and to get the users on board we defined the following three concepts:

  • A stage is a status that our case has for a period of time. So for bid management some stages are “Opportunity Identified” and “Bid Manager Assigned”. In other words these are stages that our case may be at. More formally they represent states.
  • Transitioning activities are things that happen to move a case from one stage to another. In our example a bid at “Opportunity Identified” stage may have transitioning activities of “Decide not to Bid”, and “Assign Bid Manager”.
  • Actions are things that may be done when a case is at a stage, but which do not result in a transition from one stage to another. In our example a bid at “Opportunity Identified” stage may have actions of “Obtain Clearance from Legal”, “Obtain Clearance from Ethics” and “Create Bid Management Collaboration Site in SharePoint”.

We use a 6″x4″ card for each stage, transitioning activity, and action. The name is written on in coloured pen using the following convention:

  • Stage = black
  • Transitioning activity = red
  • Action = blue

Stages go horizontally left to right across the table with transitioning activities in between and with branches where needed. Actions go vertically under the stage in which they belong. You might need a big table!

Some other useful tips are:

  • If an action can be performed in more than one stage, create a card for each stage.
  • Write on each transitioning activity and action if it is manual or automated.
  • Write on each action if it is mandatory or optional, or the rules that decide if is required.
  • Use arrows where needed to clarify flow.
  • Pre-prepare a few cards to get things started and demonstrate how it works, but be prepared to replace your cards if a better approach emerges

The following diagram shows how the cards would look for our (simplified) bid management process.

I’ve found this approach works well with up to about 6 people plus the facilitator. Users engage well with this visual approach and are soon pretty keen to start contributing new cards and moving cards around.

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