Card Sorting

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What is Card Sorting?

Card sorting is a user research method that helps designers understand how users categorize and organize information. Participants categorize content on index cards, physically or digitally. Designers use card sorting in the information architecture (IA) phase to build structures that align with users’ mental models.

In this video, Design Consultant and author Donna Spencer states, “The most important thing about this [card sorting] is that you learn about how people think about the ideas under question. You understand what things people think go together. You learn a lot about what people call those things…” 

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Why Is Card Sorting Important in Design?

Card sorting is important because it helps designers understand user mental models, improves IA, and is a key part of a user-centered design approach. It contributes to the overall success of a design because it integrates the final product with user expectations and behaviors.

Card sorting impacts design in the following ways: 

  1. User-Centered Design: Card sorting allows designers to understand users’ unique perspectives and helps to design interfaces that align with users' mental models.

  2. Informs Information Architecture: It helps designers organize information and content in the most intuitive way. When designers analyze how users categorize content, they can create IAs that represent user expectations which, in turn, improves navigation and usability.

  3. Content Relevance: Card sorting helps identify and prioritize what content or features users consider most important so they are easily accessible.

  4. Usability Improvement: When designers understand how users expect information to be organized and presented, they can make informed decisions to improve the overall usability of a design. Usability enhances the user experience and reduces cognitive load.

  5. Validation of Design Decisions: Card sorting can validate existing IAs or test proposed structures. This ensures that design decisions are grounded in user preferences and allows for more effective designs.

  6. Iterative Design Process: Design is an iterative process, and card sorting fits into this since it provides feedback that can be used to refine designs. Continuous testing and adjustment based on user input lead to designs that continually improve over time.

  7. Collaborative Decision-Making: Card sorting can involve stakeholders, including clients and team members, in the decision-making process. It facilitates collaboration and considers diverse perspectives.

  8. Optimizing Navigation: Designers can use the insights from a card sort workshop to optimize navigation paths—crucial for websites or applications with a large amount of content. 

  9. Enhancing Findability: Card sorting helps designers with discoverability. Users can find relevant information more easily when the design aligns with their mental models.

  10. Adapting to User Diversity: Different user groups have different ways to cluster and label information. Card sorting allows designers to accommodate the diverse needs and preferences of various user segments.

A pair of hands arranging a set of different colored post it notes, in the manner of a card sort

Use plain index cards or post-it notes for an in-person card sort. Card sorting helps identify and group patterns naturally and can inform a website or app’s IA and overall design. Put the process to use from the design research phase and beyond.

© UX Indonesia, Unsplash License

Types of Card Sorting

There are several types of card sorting: 

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Open Card Sort: Participants organize website content into groups based on their understanding and name each group to reflect its content accurately. Designers opt for an open card sort to see how users naturally label and group content without predefined categories. This method is beneficial in the early stages of a project.

  • Closed Card Sort: Participants categorize website content into predetermined groups. This method is suitable when working with a set of pre-established categories and aims to understand how users sort content items into each.

  • Mixed Card Sort: Designers can combine open and closed card sorting when they have some established categories but want to explore new ones. This hybrid approach lets participants use provided categories and create new ones. It's useful to expand or restructure a partially established IA.

Designers should choose different types of card sorting depending on the project’s specific requirements. 

How to Run a Card Sort

Here are some guidelines to successfully run a card sort.

Set Objectives

For any research methodology, it's crucial to clearly define the objectives and determine whether card sorting is the most effective approach to gain the intended insights. 

Example:

Consider a card sorting session which focuses on improving a community-based platform that connects volunteers with local service opportunities.

The organization wants to revamp its website. The current platform is complex, and users find it challenging to discover relevant volunteer opportunities.

In this case, an objective could be “Enhance the website's menu and navigation structure to make it more user-friendly for volunteers seeking community service opportunities.”

Select Tools

Designers can use plain index cards or sticky notes for in-person card sorting, with a range of a few to about 100 cards or more, depending on the project. For a virtual workshop, however, limit the number of cards to around 50.

Various online card sorting tools exist, and they offer a key advantage—they’re readily available and easily facilitate analysis without the need to transfer results from cards to a spreadsheet.

Prepare Instructions 

Meticulous preparation of instructions is essential. The instructions must be clear to ensure participants comprehend the task at hand. This becomes particularly crucial in an online card sort.

Designers should anticipate potential questions participants might pose. If the card sort is online, incorporate answers within the instructions. For an in-person card sort, prepare responses in advance.

Potential participant questions may include:

  • Can a card be placed in more than one group?

  • Can I exclude a card if I don't understand it?

  • Am I allowed to add a card if I sense content is missing?

Example:

For the volunteer platform, participants organize the cards into groups based on how they would expect to find volunteer opportunities on a community service platform.

The designer should encourage participants to vocalize their thought process and share any specific preferences.

They should also answer any questions the potential users might have. 

Select Participants 

It’s important to select the right people for the card sort. Determine the ideal number of participants—this is typically more straightforward for in-person sessions due to space and time constraints; 3 to 5 participants is ideal. 

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In online card sorting, it's recommended to involve only a select few individuals initially. Handling an extensive volume of responses can be overwhelming during the analysis phase. Begin by distributing the card sorting exercise to a small group, providing space for refinement and adjustment. If necessary, consider expanding the participant pool to a larger audience in subsequent rounds or phases.

Example: 

For the volunteer card sort, the designer or researcher running the session should recruit participants with varying levels of experience in volunteering, including newcomers and frequent volunteers. They should limit the number of participants to 3-5 per card sort.

Incentive

As with most research activities, incentivize the participants to ensure they are motivated to participate. This is especially true for online card sorts.

Example: 

The volunteer platform could offer a year of free access to the platform or $10 gift cards to a charitable organization, etc. 

Content Preparation 

It’s essential to evaluate the content thoroughly before the card sort. The content participants receive will determine the quality of the results.

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For a larger content set, divide the process into multiple card sorts for the best results. Avoid using jargon, as unclear content can negatively impact effective card grouping. When individuals can't understand the information, they tend to force connections that aren't genuine. To achieve the best outcome, ensure the content is clear and direct.

Example: 

In the volunteer website example, the lead designer creates physical or digital cards for categories like "Education," "Environmental Projects," "Health and Wellness," etc. They leave a few cards blank with markers available in case participants have an idea they’d like to add to the sort.

The designer prepares a set of sample volunteer opportunities within each category and identifies key tasks users often perform, such as finding tutoring opportunities or environmental cleanup projects.

Workshop

Prepare the note cards in advance and spread them out on a table before the participants arrive. Explain the instructions clearly and answer any questions that arise, then let the sorting begin! Don’t forget to take detailed notes throughout the process.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s important to provide participants with context and explain the instructions. In physical card sorts, communicate verbally; for virtual sessions, written instructions are essential.

Avoid excessive explanations or over-assistance. Participants may seek guidance, but refrain from delving into extensive detail. Encourage them to proceed independently for optimal results.

Refrain from telling participants that they’ll label the groups they create during the workshop. While impractical for online card sorts, this ensures the users focus on categories rather than being influenced by predefined labels, preserving the organic card sorting process.

Throughout the card sort, make note of participant comments. Maintain distance to facilitate natural participant conversation without disruption. 

Example:

In the case of the volunteer site, the designer should explain the purpose of the session and emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers.

They can provide a brief overview of the current platform and its challenges in connecting volunteers with opportunities.

The lead designer presents specific tasks to participants, such as finding a tutoring opportunity or discovering environmental cleanup projects, and asks them to locate the relevant category in their card groups.

The designer observes and takes notes on how participants group the cards, the labels they assign to each group, and any specific comments they make.

After the sorting, the designer should ask participants about why they made certain choices, what terms they find most intuitive, and if they encountered any difficulties.

Analysis

“The first thing you want to do is just poke around… What did people do? What’s kind of interesting? What ways did they do things?”

—Donna Spencer

In the video, Donna Spencer speaks about how to analyze the data of a card sorting workshop and pinpoint what’s most interesting or relevant to reveal the final results. 

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First, get an initial overview. It’s more convenient to analyze an online card sorting session since results are directly available on your computer. However, for in-person card sorts it’s best to streamline the process with numbers and a spreadsheet. Assign a number to each card and enter it into the spreadsheet along with the card's content to simplify data input.

Then delve deeper into the analysis—scrutinize the participants' results for detailed comparisons and identify those similarities and differences. Examine variations to extract valuable insights. Note instances where similar groupings contain different cards. Additionally, evaluate specific cards and their placement by each participant.

This is a qualitative research method—focus on the discovery of interesting aspects within the results that align with the card sort’s objectives.

Finally, integrate your findings into the project, preferably along with other research methods.

Example:

Following the volunteer organization, the designer analyzes the collected data to identify common patterns, groupings, and potential improvements for the website's menu and navigation.

They present the results to the design team and relevant stakeholders.

From there, the designer can recommend changes for the menu structure based on user insights to improve the volunteer experience.

If the design team has completed all of the above, they should be be able to establish the following outcomes after their analysis:

  • Insights into how volunteers naturally categorize and expect to find community service opportunities.

  • Identification of intuitive groupings and potential improvements for the website's menu structure.

  • Greater understanding of user preferences in the platform’s navigation which adds to a more effective and user-friendly community service hub.

Card Sorting: Benefits and Drawbacks

Card sorting provides valuable insights into information organization and user preferences. Designers everywhere praise the practice because it improves usability, coordinates designs with how users think, and makes it easier to prioritize content. However, like any methodology, card sorting is not without its limitations. 

Benefits

Card sorting offers several benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Information Organization: Card sorting helps organize and structure information and enhances accessibility and user understanding.

  • User-Centered Design: Facilitates a user-centric approach by involving participants in the categorization process; it helps to align the design with user mental models.

  • Content Prioritization: Identifies which content is most relevant or important to users during design and development.

  • Navigation Design: Card sorting informs the design of intuitive navigation systems that are aligned with how users naturally group and categorize information.

  • Reduced Cognitive Load: It minimizes cognitive load through logical content groupings and intuitive navigation.

Drawbacks

While card sorting is a valuable strategy, it does have some drawbacks:

  • Limited Quantitative Data: Card sorting provides qualitative insights but lacks quantitative data, which makes the prioritization of results objectively a challenge.

  • Time-Consuming: Sessions can be time-intensive, especially when they involve a lot of content to process or a large number of participants.

  • Difficulty with Divergent Thinking: Some participants may struggle with open-ended categorization tasks. This limits the effectiveness of capturing diverse perspectives.

  • Not Suitable for All Content: Card sorting may not be the best fit for highly complex or technical content; other methods like tree testing or mind mapping may be more appropriate.

  • Dependency on Participants: Participants’ knowledge, backgrounds, or cognitive biases can influence results and potentially lead to skewed outcomes. Too many participants also presents a problem, as does too few.

Learn More about Card Sorting 

Read more about card sorting in Chapter 22 of IxDF’s The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed. by William Hudson. 

If you want to learn more about how to run a card sorting session, read IxDF’s Card Sorting: The Ultimate Guide (in 2024)

Watch Donna Spencer’s Master Class, How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture.

Interested in learning more about card sorting and UX Design? Enroll in Interaction Design for Usability with user-centered design expert, William Hudson, today!

Read about card sorting on Usability.gov’s website. 

Questions related to Card Sorting

How do I choose between open, closed, and hybrid card sorting?

Depending on your project goals, development stage, and the information you want, you can choose between open, closed, or hybrid card sorting.

Early in the project, choose open card sorting. Participants organize topics into categories without predefined labels. It helps understand users' mental models, especially when creating a new system.

For established categories, use closed card sorting. This method clarifies how users sort items into predefined groups, useful to validate or redefine existing structures like website navigation.

Explore a hybrid approach by starting with an open card sort to identify content categories, then transition to a closed card sort to evaluate the effectiveness of those category labels.

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You can learn more about open and closed card sorting in Donna Spencer’s Master Class, “How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture.

What tools do you need to conduct a card sorting session?

To conduct a card sorting session effectively, you need a combination of physical or digital tools. Here’s a breakdown:

Index cards or post-it notes are tools of the UX trade. It’s always beneficial to have them on hand.  

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0 

  • Cards: In a physical session, use index cards or sticky notes. Each card should represent a concept, function, or item relevant to your information architecture (IA). For a digital session, use online card sorting tools that allow virtual card manipulation.

  • Labels: Clearly label each card. In digital tools, you can type the labels; in physical sessions, write legibly on the cards.

  • Recording Tools: For in-person sessions, use a camera or smartphone to record the final sorted groups for analysis. Digital tools automatically record this data.

  • Space: For a physical session, a large table or wall space is necessary to spread out and organize cards. Digital sessions require a reliable internet connection and a platform for participants to access the sorting tool.

  • Participants: Recruit a diverse group of participants who represent your target user base. Make sure they understand the scope and purpose of the session.

  • Instructions: Prepare clear instructions explaining the task to ensure participants understand their objective.

  • Note-taking Materials: For in-person sessions, have pens and paper for participants to jot down their thoughts. Digital sessions might allow for notes within the sorting tool.

  • Consent Forms: If recording the session, prepare consent forms in compliance with privacy and data protection laws.

  • Analysis Tools: Post-session, use tools like spreadsheets or specialized software to analyze the data collected.

Remember, the choice of tools should align with the goals of your card sorting session and the comfort level of your participants whether digital or in-person.

What are some recommended books that cover card sorting?

Several books offer comprehensive insights into card sorting and its application in user experience (UX) design

Read Donna Spencer’s, Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories, from Rosenfeld Media in 2009. 

This book is a definitive guide on card sorting. It covers everything from planning and conducting sessions to analyzing results. It's especially useful for those new to card sorting, providing step-by-step guidance and practical advice.

The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide by Leah Buley, Rosenfeld Media, 2013.

Buley’s book is apt for solo UX practitioners or small teams. It gives practical tips on various UX methods, like card sorting, and provides real-world advice for effective UX research and design.

Learn more from The MIT Press’, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (2000).

It takes a broader view, examining the role of categorization in society and technology. Bowker and Star provide a deeper understanding of how classification impacts web design and user experience.

What are some highly cited research on card sorting?

Some highly cited and influential research papers on card sorting, information architecture (IA), and beyond include:

Tullis, Tom, et al. "An Empirical Comparison of Lab and Remote User Testing of Web Interfaces." Human Interface Design Dept; Fidelity Investments, (2002). 

Roth, Robert E., et al. "Card Sorting for Cartographic Research and Practice." Journal of Maps 13, no. 2 (2017): 705-715.

Finnie-Ansley, James, Paul Denny, and Andrew Luxton-Reilly. 2022. "Play Your Cards Right: Using Quantitative Card-Sort Data to Examine Students' Pattern-Like Concepts." In Proceedings of the 53rd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education - Volume 1 (SIGCSE 2022), Vol. 1, 857–863. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery.

What is the best way to recruit participants for a card sorting session?

Recruiting participants for a card sort is crucial to obtain valuable insights. The best approach involves several key steps:

  1. Define Your Target Audience: Identify the typical users of your product or service. Your participants should represent this group as closely as possible to ensure the results are relevant.

  2. Determine the Number of Participants: A helpful guideline is to include 3-5 participants for every card sorting session. You can run multiple sessions with different participants. This range provides sufficient data for analysis without becoming too complicated.

  3. Use Multiple Recruitment Methods: Use various channels like social media, email lists, forums related to your product, UX research tools, and professional networks. If you have an existing customer base, consider reaching out to them, too.

  4. Offer Incentives: Incentives such as gift cards, discounts, or access to premium features can increase participation rates. Ensure the incentives are appealing to your target audience.

  5. Screen Participants: Use screening questions to ensure participants fit your target user profile. This step is crucial for the validity of your results.

  6. Schedule Sessions Flexibly: In in-person sessions, offer multiple time slots. For online sessions, provide clear instructions on how and when to participate.

  7. Ensure Ethical Practices: Obtain informed consent, explain the purpose of the study and how you will use the data, and ensure privacy.

  8. Prepare for No-Shows: Always recruit more participants than needed to account for no-shows or dropouts.

In the video below, HCI and UX expert, William Hudson, describes the best methods to use to recruit participants for UX research. 

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To learn more about recruitment methods and best practices, dive into IxDF’s Data-Driven Design: Quantitative Research for UX course.

How long should a card sorting session last?

It usually depends on how complex the content is and the method. However, as a general guideline, a session should last between 15 to 30 minutes.

In the video, UX Consultant, Donna Spencer, explains the type and level of content of a card sort.

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Learn more in the Master Class How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture.

How can card sorting results inform website or app structure?

Card sorting results inform the structure of websites or apps, as they reflect how users categorize and understand content. Here's how you can leverage the results:

  • The way participants group items in card sorting provides direct insight into how they logically categorize information. This creates a structure that aligns with users' mental models, making navigation more intuitive and user-centered.

  • Analyze common groupings and labels to design navigation menus and categories that feel natural to users. This includes naming menu items and grouping content under these categories. 

  • Card sorting helps identify which content potential users consider most important or related. This informs the hierarchy on your website or app and ensures the most relevant information is easily accessible.

  • When you organize content in a way that reflects users' expectations, you increase the findability of information. Users are more likely to quickly find what they're looking for, improving the overall user experience.

  • The process may reveal content areas that users find confusing (gaps) or perceive as overlapping (redundancies). From there, you can refine and clarify content or merge/split categories as needed.

  • Understanding how users categorize information can help your team design more efficient user flows and journeys through the website or app.

  • Card sorting is often part of an iterative design process. You can use participants’ feedback to make adjustments and then test again to refine the structure further.

  • Since card sorting often involves diverse participants, results are inclusive which helps your website or app’s structure cater to a broader audience.

  • Finally, perhaps a non-obvious use of card sorting is to highlight the differences in the way domain experts and non-domain experts think about the same website or app structure. Card sorting expert, Donna Spencer, explains more in the video below.

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What are some advantages of digital card sorting over physical card sorting?

Digital card sorting offers several advantages over physical card sorting, such as:

  1. Digital tools automatically collect and analyze data quickly and with the ability to generate statistical reports and visual representations of the data.

  2. It easily handles more cards and participants than physical sorting, which is often limited by physical space and materials.

  3. It eliminates the need for physical materials, rental space, and to transcribe results from physical cards. Also, it reduces time spent on set-up and managing the session. 

  4. Participants might feel more at ease in their own environment, leading to more genuine responses. They can also complete the task at their convenience.

  5. Digital card sorting is more environmentally friendly as it reduces the need for paper-based materials.

How can you integrate card sorting findings into wireframes and prototypes?

Integrating card sorting results into wireframes and prototypes involves a few key steps. 

First, develop the information architecture (IA) using the categories and groups identified in the card sort. This IA acts as a blueprint for content organization, aligning it with user expectations. Next, design the navigation menus—use labels participants preferred during the card sorting exercise to create an intuitive experience. Organize each page or section based on card sorting findings and emphasize the most crucial items for clear content hierarchy.

Wireframes for different screen sizes.Card sorting helps inform wireframes and prototypes whether on paper or digitally. Designers can use the feedback from the sessions to inspire their initial low-fidelity (lo-fi) designs.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

As you create wireframes, guarantee they illustrate the basic layout and content allocation based on these insights. Then, map out the website or app user flow with logical and efficient paths. Incorporate the initial data into early wireframes and prototypes, then validate and refine design decisions through user testing.

Consider the contextual placement of elements, not just categorization, to guide their relationship on individual screens or pages. Be responsive to feedback; adapt your wireframes and prototypes as needed. Finally, integrate visual design elements that enhance the IA so the design is accessible and inclusive for diverse users.

You can learn more about sketching wireframes in the course Interaction Design for Usability with William Hudson.

How do you set realistic objectives for a card sorting study?

Setting realistic objectives for a card sorting study is crucial for its success and relevance. Consider the following points:

  • Understand the project goals.

  • Identify key content areas.

  • Determine the scope of the session.

  • Choose the right method.

  • Consider participants’ profiles.

  • Be specific and measurable when giving instructions.

  • Plan for actionable results.

  • Consider resource availability and remain flexible.

  • Review and adjust objectives - iterate!

  • Ensure objectives are user-centric.

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Literature on Card Sorting

Here’s the entire UX literature on Card Sorting by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Card Sorting

Take a deep dive into Card Sorting with our course Interaction Design for Usability .

This course will teach you fundamental usability concepts and methods and will tie them together with interaction and visual design. By completing the course, you will become equipped with the tools required to create products with outstanding user experience and usability. Your newly acquired knowledge will also enable you to reduce the costs, risk, and time required to design and implement such products.

You’ll learn to adopt a user-centered approach to UX design and usability so you can create user-friendly products that people love to use—for example, by allowing for user errors and providing timely feedback messages. More importantly, it is crucial that your entire team—developers, project managers, and product owners alike—adopt this holistic, user-centered mindset. This course therefore aims to provide any team member with just that: it will not only equip you with fundamental usability and design concepts, but also introduce you to lean and agile processes that will allow your whole team to become design-centric.

You should take this course if you belong to a team whose goal is to create a great product—whatever role you play in that. The fact of the matter is that usability experts and UX designers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the people who influence the design of a product. A sound understanding of user-centered design processes is thus greatly beneficial whether you’re a UX designer, developer, or a newcomer to design who wants to be part of a product team one day.

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