What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a user research method for uncovering how people assimilate and classify information in your website allowing you to develop an effective information architecture and sitemap.

It is a simple and straightforward process where your participants / customers sort items into a classification. It can be used to label and group information in a website in a way that makes sense to the audience.

The card sort technique is very useful to websites with numerous categories such as educational institutions, online news agencies and e-commerce.

When to use card sorting

You can use card sorting when you are designing a new website or when you are updating an existing one.

It can be also be utilised to find out how your audience expect the information in the website to be grouped and classified.

You get to see how your customers rank or arrange items based on a set of criteria; and understand as well as compare how people conceptualise different ideas and items.

How to prepare for a card sort

The first step is to create a set of cards with each card representing a concept or item, and asking participants to classify and group the cards into categories that make sense to them.

What are the main types of card sort?

There are 3 main types of card sorting:

  • open card sort
  • closed card sort
  • hybrid card sort

These serve different purposes depending on what you want to find out. Choosing the right method type at the right time is essential to gather high quality, relevant information for your design decisions. This then gives you insights into the nomenclature your target group uses.

Open card sorting

Card sortingOpen card sorting is similar to an open-ended question, meaning you are asking your participants about their full understanding of the items.

It is not restricted to one type of response and is more flexible.

Open card sorting allows you to find out expectations about the different classifications in your site whilst giving you awareness into the labels or names your participants / customers use.

It is more generative than evaluative; generating ideas on how to structure and label your website information. This is most useful when designing the information architecture of the website or improving it.

Open card sorting can also be used for categorising blog content, grouping products in an e-commerce store or in structuring your help center topics and articles.

Closed card sorting

In a closed card sort you want to find out what the participants think of the information in your conceptual framework.

Closed card sorting is more evaluative as your participants evaluate the information and put them in the labels or categories that you provide. It is a good way of testing an established structure.

It is useful in targeting unclear and misleading classification labels and fixing them. It gives you an idea on what are the most useful or most used categories in your framework and ones that are most ignored.

Closed card sorting can be used to to prioritise and rank features, products and search filters based on criteria such as important and unimportant, or useful and not useful.

You can also find out what content in the website your customers or audience would use the most using this method.

Hybrid card sorting

Hybrid card sorting uses a combination of an open and closed card sort.

You provide your participants the items and categories as well as allow them to create their own categories. It can be more open or more closed depending on your specifications and type of categories you’ve already created.

It can be useful in generating ideas for grouping information and if you want to provide an initial pattern of classification that participants can then take inspiration from.

Online and offline card sorting

There’s a great contention between online and offline card sorting and when these can complement each other.

Online card sorting is great in many ways; an unlimited number of participants, reaching more participants is possible and it can be unmoderated and economical without compromising the results you want.

Offline card sorting has it’s own advantages as it gives you more qualitative information on participants’ feelings as they sort your classification.

However, as it is done in person that potentially limits the reach as well as number of participants you may be able to recruit. As it requires a moderator it can be more expensive than online sorting.

Nielson/Norman Group recommends card sorting with around 15 users to get statistically significant findings.

You can do an online card sort whilst simultaneously conducting a small scale offline sort to get the qualitative comprehension too.

Another way to get more qualitative data with your online card sorting is to add survey questions with your sorting exercise.

What online card sorting tools should I use?

There are several online card sorting tools that provide you the access to the right participants as well as add qualitative value to your exercise.

Here are some online card sorting tools available for open and closed sorting with the option of recruiting participants/customers online and additional survey questions:

  • Optimal Workshop | Optimal Sort provides sorting for open or closed card sorts with the option to recruit participants online and numerous survey questions for qualitative data gathering.
  • UserZoom is a card sorting tool that offers both open and closed sorting with a customisable look and feel – tailoring the exercise to your brand image. Online recruitment is also available.
  • Usability Tools allow you to create card sort items with survey questions, screenshot tests or scenario-based exercises. It has attractive data visualisations and recruitment options.

Card sorting is a time tested technique in ensuring UX designers get the insight for creating solid information architecture in a website.

It helps you make the right decisions by understanding how users perceive and use your content. As you run your card sorting exercise, carefully interpret the results and always consider re-testing the changed framework.

Image courtesy FullCodePress

Categories: UX Basics

Chris Mears

Chris is co-founder of UXmentor.me. He has worked with clients such as the UK government, Just Eat & Which? with a focus on service design and transformation.