What it is
Testing your content involves checking that users understand it and can use it. Two common methods of testing content with users are ‘pens of power’ and ‘card sorts’.
Why it’s important
When you write content, it’s important you test it with actual users to make sure they understand it and can use it to do the things they need to do. Working with users will help you improve your content.
Both pens of power and card sorts can be useful techniques to use in certain situations. Pens of power can show you where users struggle to understand content. It can be particularly useful in challenging legal or policy wording.
Card sorts are a good way of checking how users understand information architecture. It helps you work out how to group, organise and label content in topic-based hierarchies. It can also tell you a lot about what users understand about wording of article titles or categories.
How you do it
Pens of power
To use the pens of power method you should:
- Print out copies of the content you want to test.
- Give users 2 different coloured highlighter pens.
- Assign positive and negative values to each pen (for example a green pen for ‘easy to understand’ and a red pen for ‘confusing’).
Other values could be:
- gives you more confidence vs makes you concerned
- feels familiar vs feels unfamiliar
- applies to you vs doesn’t apply to you
- helpful vs unhelpful
- Ask users to read the text and use the pens to highlight the content.
- Ask them about what they highlight, for example - ‘You’ve marked this as ‘helpful’, why?’
- For anything they mark negatively, ask what words they would use to explain it instead.
Showing your results
Pens of power is a helpful way of showing users struggling to understand content. It can help convince stakeholders to change wording.
You can show your results in different ways. For example, you could create a heat map from each user’s response - this is an easy way visualise common things users struggled with.
You could also film users completing the pens power exercise by mounting a webcam directly above them. If you choose to film your sessions, you could even invite your stakeholders to watch them, or share video clips afterwards.
In a card sort, users are given cards with content headings, categories and navigation elements on them. They’re then asked to sort them into groups of related items.
Card sorts can be done offline using actual cards made from paper. They can also be online done using card sorting software such as:
There are 2 main methods for card sorts, known as ‘open’ or ‘closed’:
Open card sorts
In open card sorts, you ask users to organise content headings, categories and navigation elements into groups. You then ask them to give each group a title.
To do an offline, open card sort you should:
- Print out your content headings, categories and navigation elements and arrange them on a wall or table in no particular order.
- Ask users to group the headings, categories and navigation elements in a way that makes sense to them.
- Ask users to give each of their groups a title.
- Ask why they did what they did.
Closed card sorts
In closed card sorts you ask users to organise content headings, categories and navigation elements under predefined group titles.
To do an offline, closed card sort you should:
- Print out your content headings, categories and navigation elements, and predefined group titles.
- Arrange your content headings, categories and navigation elements in no particular order on a wall or table. Place your predefined group titles above them.
- Ask users to group the content headings, categories and navigation elements under the group titles.
- Ask why they did what they did.
Usability testing is a way of generally finding out where products and services need to be improved - this often includes content changes. A user researcher will be able to conduct [usability testing] on your behalf.
Digital First Service Standard
This article offers guidance relevant to the following criteria from the Digital First service standard:
- User centred
- Usable and accessible
- Continuous feedback