Card Sorting

What is Card Sorting?

Card sorting is a powerful UX method that gets participants to classify pieces of information (traditionally represented by index cards) into categories. This helps you understand your users' expectations and understanding of your features or content, which then helps you design or evaluate the information architecture of your product. There are two main types of Card Sorting; Open and Closed.

An Open Card Sort has participants organize the information into categories of their own devising, and then has them name each category in a way that they feel best represents it. This method is great for learning how users would naturally group your content, and the terms or labels they would naturally give each one.

A Closed Card Sort asks participants to organize the information into predefined categories. This method works best when you want to learn how well your categories work, or where users expect to find information within the predetermined areas of your product. For example, you may have already defined a nav menu, and now want to know the best way to fill out the sub navigation.

A stack of index cards.

What do you need for Card Sorting?

timeTIME

  • Time to prepare the index cards: ~3 Hours
  • Time per session: 30 to 60 minutes
  • Number of sessions: 5-8
  • Time for analysis: ~4 hours

materialsMATERIALS

  • A lot of index cards and a marker.
  • A camera to record the completed card sort
  • Something to take notes on

How do you conduct a Card Sorting session?

Four index cards.
  1. Step 1: Complete a content audit

    A content audit will give you a complete inventory of your content. This will allow you to then identify the most important or most frequently used content.

    Once done, make sure to review these goals with your stakeholders.

  2. Step 2: Determine the goal of your card sort

    A goal will help you identify the most important content for your cards. An example of a goal could be to “determine what categories of information should be on the site's homepage and what those categories should be called”.

  3. Step 3: Create your cards

    Based on the goal, choose the content items from the content inventory that are relevant to your card sort, and write a relevant content item on each index card.

  4. Step 4: Set up the space

    Spread the cards out on a table in your testing area. If you’re doing a Closed Card Sort, write the name of each of your content categories on a different coloured index card and place them at the top of the table in a row. If you’re doing an Open Card Sort, keep those different coloured index cards blank. The participant will use these to create their own category labels later on.

  5. Step 5: Conduct the session

    Explain the Card Sort task to the participant, then ask them to describe their thoughts as they sort. This will allow you to understand their thoughts, rationale, and frustrations.

    Allow the participant to add a content card, eliminate a card, or change a label. This may reveal interesting insights.

    Plan about one hour for each session. Times will vary depending on the amount of information they have to sort, and Closed Card Sorts typically take less time than Open Card Sorts.

  6. Step 6: Document the results

    Take a photo of the table so you can compare the results easily with other users’ card sorts.

  7. Step 7: Repeat the process with each participant

    I suggest around 5-8 participants. This will allow you to find some consistency in which cards appeared together most often, or how often cards appeared in specific categories.

  8. Step 8: Analyze the results

    Take note of the patterns you found in the card results, and take note of the similar comments made by your participants. If such patterns do not emerge, it may mean that the content is too broad, or that the terminology used for the content is confusing to your participants.

  9. Step 9: Share the takeaways

    Finally, share the takeaways with your stakeholders and team.

Tips for a great Card Sort

  • If you find the participant has created too many groups in your Open Card Sort, ask them if some of the groups could be combined.
  • Limit the number of cards to what’s appropriate for your goal and your timeframe. I recommend 30 to 50 at the most. You can always adjust this slightly after each session.
  • You can always do an Open Card Sort first to see how your content is grouped together and labeled, and a Closed Card Sort to validate those labels with another round of participants.
  • Try online tools like Miro to conduct these sessions remotely.
An index card with a heart drawn on it in red crayon.

More resources for Card Sorting

BenchmarkingCompetitive Analysis