What is Card Sorting? Card Sorting Definition & Types

What is card sorting? Card sorting definition & types

Reading Time: 9 minutes
What is Card Sorting?

Card sorting allows you to learn how individuals interpret information, feel about specific ideas, and how designers might lay out the content on a website or product. 

Throughout this article, we will look at various types of card sorting, different card sorting exercises and formats, how to conduct good card sorting, and which card sorting tools to utilize. 

Stick with this article to learn about card sorting UX skills based on suggestions from our designers and research specialists.

Card sorting definition

It is a research approach in which participants sort individually labeled cards into groups based on criteria that make sense to them.

The cards can include pages, links, photos, or descriptions of pages that users would visit on your website.

To conduct a sorting session, provide each participant with an unsorted set of cards. Then, ask the participant to categorize the items, information, or concepts into groups.

For example, an athletic-clothing e-commerce site may provide a participant with a deck of cards labeled:

  • Sweatshirts
  • Gloves
  • Hats
  • tank tops
  • tank tops

Sweatshirts and tank tops may be placed in the Tops category, while gloves and hats may be placed in the Accessories area.

Why do we conduct card sorting activity?

UX Card sorting can help you decide how to organize the items and build the navigation when designing a website.

It can respond to questions like:

  • What should be on the homepage?
  • What parts should be created, and what will they contain?
  • What is the most significant approach to show users information so they can find it and finish a task?

Card sorting assesses a website’s information architecture (IA). IA examines several areas of a user’s experience while interacting with a product.

How do participants find information and then browse it?

As a designer, how can you effectively represent information so people can access it easily?

The information acquired from a card sorting exercise allows a designer to create an intuitive and easy-to-navigate website.

Main types of card sorting

Main Types of Card Sorting
Image Source

Open card sorting

Open card sorting is a generative research sorting exercise, not evaluative; it helps discover and characterize the problem rather than evaluate a solution.

This method of UX card sorting reveals how users classify the cards and the labels they use for each group, resulting in new ideas and category names and a better understanding of your users.

An open sorting test can help you learn how a target audience structures information, identify potential bottlenecks, and label categories and subcategories more accurately.

Closed card sorting

Closed card sorting is an evaluative research approach that assesses and validates potential ideas or solutions.

A closed sorting session involves presenting participants with a pre-selected set of categories and asking them to prioritize and arrange cards according to their fit within those categories.

This sorting activity needs to reveal how consumers intuitively organize topics. Instead, it is typically used to determine if existing category labels are understandable.

Pro tip:

You can also use closed sorting as a follow-up to open card sorting to determine whether the categories indicated in the previous round appear sensible to most users.

Hybrid card sorting

Hybrid card sorting combines open and closed card sorting methods. Participants can sort a collection of cards into predetermined categories or create new ones.

This strategy is perfect when you already have some categories created but need help deciding how to identify the others or are unsure what goes where.

Read more UX theories like Survivorship Bias

Most suitable card sorting formats

Moderated card sorting

Moderated card sorting exercise is best when quality is more important than quantity. Speaking directly with participants to learn their reasons will help you obtain a deeper understanding, even if it takes longer.

Moderated sorting involves a moderator who debriefs the participants and asks follow-up questions after the sorting. This allows participants to gain qualitative insights into the rationale for the grouping.

Moderated card sorting is typically helpful in instances when you want to:

  • Gain a deep, nuanced awareness of the user rather than a broad group knowledge.
  • Understand the users’ direct thought processes rather than just the outcomes.

Unmoderated card sorting

Unmoderated sorting, instead of moderated card sorting, requires participants to organize content into groups independently, either as a solo activity or with numerous people collaborating.

Running your UX card sorting as unmoderated research allows participants the freedom and flexibility to do what feels appropriate without feeling watched, which may cause them to reevaluate their initial decisions.

This card sorting activity is your go-to format if you are looking for:

  • Collect significant volumes of feedback from multiple consumers or groups of people.
  • Conduct a card sort with a limited budget.
  • Discover the most natural reactions from users, and do not hesitate to evaluate the data yourself (rather than chatting directly with participants).

Digital card sorting

Digital card sorting involves using online sorting tools and software to imitate the card sorting drag-and-drop process of breaking cards into groups.

This method is often more straightforward because it involves fewer resources. The tool will handle the heavy lifting of assessing the card sorting data and determining which items were most regularly categorized.

It is also considerably faster because you can collect a large volume of data in less time and detect trends more quickly.

Digital sorting is handy if you are:

  • Looking to obtain information from a wide range of participants, such as people from multiple nations.
  • Due to time constraints, the sorting must be completed rapidly, and the results must be processed quickly.

Paper card sorting

A more conventional method is paper or in-person card sorting, in which you write the subjects on actual cards and ask participants to arrange them into groups.

Although this activity can also be used for unmoderated sorting, it naturally lends itself more to moderated sorting.

Even though many user-friendly and comprehensive online programs are available for paper sorting, digital sorting offers limited capabilities.

UX card sorting process

UX Card Sorting Process
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Step 1: Create the cards

One way medium-sized businesses can stand out and retain customers is by prioritizing UI/UX design.

Identify content: List all the information or content you want to include in your product or website. These could be features, topics, products, or other relevant items.

Write the cards: Create individual cards for each piece of content. These can be physical cards or digital equivalents if you’re using an online tool. Each card should have a clear and concise label representing the content item.

Ensure clarity: Make sure each card is understandable on its own. Avoid jargon or complex terminology that might confuse participants.

Step 2: Ask participants to organize the cards into groups

Objective: To understand how users categorize information.

Select participants: Choose a diverse group representing your target audience. The number of participants can vary, but having around 15-20 participants usually provides sufficient insights.

Explain the task: Give clear instructions to participants. Ask them to group the cards into categories that make sense to them. Encourage them to think aloud while organizing the cards to gain insight into their thought process.

Conduct the sorting: Allow participants to physically move the cards around or use an online tool. Ensure they have enough time to think through their decisions without feeling rushed.

Step 3: Have participants label each group

Objective: To gain insight into how users label and conceptualize different categories.

Ask for labels: Once participants have grouped the cards, ask them to label each group with a name that best describes the category. These labels provide valuable insights into the users’ mental models and terminology.

Encourage descriptive labels: Participants should be descriptive and specific with their labels to better understand their categorization logic.

Step 4: Analyze the data you’ve collected

Objective: To derive actionable insights from the sorting exercise.

Aggregate the data: Collect all the groupings and labels from each participant. This step may be automated if a digital tool is used.

Identify patterns: Look for common patterns and groupings across different participants. Identify which items arec onsistently grouped and what labels are frequently used.

Create a hierarchical structure: Based on the patterns, create a hierarchical structure or information architecture that reflects the users’ mental models. This may involve creating primary categories and subcategories.

Validate and iterate: Use the insights to design or refine your information architecture. Consider conducting additional rounds or other user testing methods to validate the structure.

Read detailed steps to conduct Enterprise User Research

Here is the list of the most common card sorting tools:

ToolsCard Sort TypeWorks onPricing
kardsortOpen, closed, hybridBrowsersFree
UXtweakOpen, closed, hybridBrowsersFree with paid plans from €90/month
Optimal WorkshopOpen, closed, hybridBrowsers, Mac, WindowsFree with paid plans from $166/month
MiroOpen, closed, hybridBrowsers, Mac, Windows, iOS, AndroidFree with paid plans from $10/month
UX MetricsOpen, closed, hybridBrowsersFree with paid plans from $99/month
MazeOpen, closedBrowsersFree with paid plans from $25/month
UserZoomOpen, closedBrowsersPaid plans from $250/month

When is card sorting exercise right for you?

When considering which information to organize on your website: 

Using UX card sorting, you can better understand how people organically arrange and classify your content and develop an information architecture that makes sense to them.

However, using this technique on more sophisticated or technical websites might be challenging for individuals who need more processing skills.

All that is required is a framework; the information is already there: 

Card sorting can help you decide which structure will make the most sense and be most accessible for users to navigate when presenting a collection of content on your website.

To enhance page navigation and UX: 

Card sorting UX helps identify areas where your current navigation may be confusing.

Still, it may also be used with other research techniques, such as tree testing, to assess how effectively people can navigate this new structure.

Comprehending mental models:

Sorting cards show how your target audience views the connections between various content elements.

This can help you create a website that meets your users’ needs and expectations.

Naming decided upon by the user: 

Watching users label and describe different categories during the sorting activity can help you learn about users’ preferred vocabulary.

This will help ensure that your website employs language people will understand and find familiar.

Best card sorting practices to follow

Make only a few cards

Consider what is most important to include when organizing many cards for a card sort.

This will allow participants to focus on your website or application’s most important features, producing more meaningful and actionable results: group similar cards and ideas into broader categories.

Later, follow-up meetings might be held to discuss the details further.

Avoid combining parent and child categories

An organized and user-friendly information architecture can help make the intended level of granularity in your card sorting activity more evident to participants.

If you must investigate both hierarchy tiers, consider holding individual sorting exercises for each.

Alternate the cards’ order at random

Having participants deal with the cards in a different sequence can avoid any bias that the card order might impose.

This method ensures that the results accurately represent your users’ mental models and preferences, resulting in a more user-friendly and intuitive information architecture

Select the suitable participants

You must enlist study participants who accurately reflect the intended audience for your website or product while setting up your card sorting.

Getting a decent balance between people who are familiar with your product and others who might be experiencing it for the first time is part of this.

What’s next?

Understanding user behavior through research and testing is the first step toward building a site that delivers material swiftly and is pleasurable. Sometimes, more than one test is needed.

Feel free to re-test the information from your initial session and perform another card sort to evaluate the results further.

You can design an intuitive and straightforward product once you understand how customers interpret web material.

Read next on: What is Juxtaposition?

Frequently asked questions

What is card sorting UX?

It is a technique where a participant tests a group of subject experts or users to generate a dendrogram or folksonomy.

This process helps design information architecture, workflows, menu structure, and website navigation paths. 

It helps organize and structure content in an intuitive and user-friendly way. By involving users or experts in sorting and categorizing information, designers gain insights into how people naturally group and organize information, which informs the design of a more user-centered experience. 

What are the limitations of card sorting?

Subjectivity:

This technique relies on the participants’ subjective interpretations, preferences, and mental models. This subjectivity can introduce bias into the results and interpretations.

Limited scalability: 

Card sorting with many participants can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Scaling up the process for extensive data collection may be challenging.

Interpretation challenges:

Interpreting the results of card sorting UX can be complex. Expertise in information architecture, user experience design, and qualitative research methods may be required to derive meaningful insights.

Missing context:

Card sorting exercises often organize information into categories or groups without providing the context in which the information will be used. This lack of context can limit the relevance and applicability of the results.

A single point: 

Card sorting captures participants’ preferences and mental models at a specific moment. These preferences may change over time or in different contexts, leading to potentially inaccurate results.

Is card sorting activity qualitative?

In UX research and design, this qualitative method used to understand how users categorize information and organize content.

It helps researchers understand users’ mental models and preferences when navigating a website or application. 

The qualitative aspect of this method lies in analyzing the patterns, groupings, and reasoning behind how participants sort the cards or content items.

Through this qualitative analysis, researchers can uncover user priorities, expectations, and preferences, which can inform the design and organization of information architecture to meet user needs better.

Creative Director and Founder of Octet Design Studio- Aakash Jethwani
Aakash Jethwani

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