What Is Card Sorting? Card Sorting In A Nutshell

Card sorting is a technique where users are asked to organize information into logical groups. Card sorting is a qualitative user experience design technique where an individual tests a group of users to generate category trees and other classification systems.

Understanding card sorting

Card sorting is a straightforward process, with users asked to group individual labels written on cards according to criteria that make sense to them. The approach clarifies how a target audience structures domain knowledge, with these insights used to create workflows, menu structures, and website navigation paths that meet user expectations.

For practitioners, there are three different card sorting techniques to choose from:

  • Open card sorting – where participants sort cards into categories and label each category themselves in a way they deem most accurate.
  • Closed card sorting – where participants sort cards into predetermined categories. This approach does not reveal how users conceptualize multiple topics. Instead, it is used to evaluate how well an existing category framework supports the content.
  • Hybrid card sorting – a combination of open and closed card sorting.

Conducting a card sort

A general overview of card sorting is detailed below:

  1. Choose the topics – write each topic on an individual index card, but avoid using topics that share common words as participants tend to group these topics together. For best results, the study should incorporate 40-80 topics.
  2. Organize the topics – the cards should then be shuffled and given to study participants. Cards should be grouped into category piles, with topics the participant is unsure about left to one side. 
  3. Name the groups – once participants are satisfied, they should be handed blank cards to name each pile if conducting open card sorting. While this step helps reveal the user’s mental model, study organizers should not expect the labels to be perfect.
  4. Debrief the user – ask the participants to explain the rationale behind their groupings. Take the time to ask probing questions. Did any items belong to two or more categories? What are your thoughts regarding the items put to one side? Were any of the items especially easy or difficult to sort?
  5. Ask for more practical group sizes – an optional step if larger categories need to be broken down into smaller groups, or vice versa. 
  6. Repeat the process – the process must then be repeated with around 15-20 others to detect patterns in user mental models.
  7. Analyze the data – once the data has been compiled, look for commonalities in groups, category names, or themes. Also look for items frequently paired with each other or put in the too-hard basket, so to speak. Combine the identified patterns with any pre-existing qualitative insights to design a better user experience. 

Note that the card sorting process can also be performed digitally using specialized software. Digital card sorting is less labor-intensive since the software can easily determine commonly grouped items. However, the same software can also be restrictive and prevent participants from creating the exact groups they desire.

Key takeaways:

  • Card sorting is a technique where users are asked to organize information into logical groups. The straightforward process involves users grouping individual labels written on cards according to criteria that make sense to them.
  • There are three general types of card sorting: open, closed, and hybrid. Open card sorting allows the individual to sort cards according to personal criteria, while closed card sorting instructs the users to sort content into predetermined categories. The latter is used to evaluate how well an existing category framework supports the content.
  • Card sorting can be performed on paper or digitally. Using paper, the process involves choosing a topic, organizing the topics, naming the groups, debriefing the users, creating more practical group sizes (optional), repeating the process with more participants, and analyzing the data. 

Related concepts to card sorting

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