What Is Card Sorting In UX Design? A Beginner’s Guide

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

Trying to build an intuitive and easy-to-use website? Card sorting can help!

Card sorting is a quantitative user research method, primarily used by UX designers and information architects. In this post, we’ll tell you what card sorting is, why it’s so useful, and how to use it. We’ve broken our guide down into the following sections:

  1. What is card sorting?
  2. Why do we use card sorting?
  3. Types of card sorting
  4. What tools do you need to conduct a card sort?
  5. How to conduct a card sort step-by-step
  6. Card sorting tips and best practices
  7. What comes next?

Ready for the ultimate introduction to card sorting? Let’s go.

1. What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a research tool used to assess or determine the way information is grouped, labeled, and organised within a site by allowing users to sort content topics into categories that make sense to them. In the video below, our Head of the Mentor Team talks you through how to conduct a card sort—if you’re an audiovisual learner, check it out.

Card sorting helps you understand what users expect of a site so you can provide a product that meets their needs. Creating structure in the content using information gained from card sorting promotes a smoother interaction between the user and the system by presenting the information in a way that is easily accessible and findable for them.

As the name suggests, card sorting is done using cards. First, you’ll pick a set of topics based on the content you want to include on your website or app. You’ll write a different topic on each card, shuffle the cards into a random order, and then hand them over to the user to sort into piles.

The aim of card sorting is to get the users to group information in a way that makes sense to them. This helps you understand your users’ mental models, and thus determine the best way to organize your site content.

What is a mental model?

A mental model is based on what the user believes about a given system; in other words, how they expect a certain system to work. When it comes to websites and apps, the user’s mental model will influence how they navigate, and interact with, the interface. So, as a designer, it’s important to design products that match the users’ expectations. Card sorting is an excellent way to learn about how your users expect information to be categorized and structured.

With that in mind, let’s consider in more detail why we use card sorting in UX design.

2. Why do we use card sorting?

When planning the design of a website, card sorting can give you insight into how the items should be grouped and how the navigation should be identified and structured. It can answer questions like:

  • What should be on the homepage?
  • What sections should be created and what do they include?
  • What is the best way to present information to the user in order for them to find it and complete a task?

Card sorting is used to evaluate the information architecture (IA) of a site. IA looks at a few different aspects of a user’s experience when interacting with a product. How do participants search for information and then browse through it? As the designer, how can you represent the information in an effective way that allows users to access information smoothly? The information obtained from a card sort helps a designer construct a site that is intuitive and easy to navigate.

3. Types of card sorting

There are a few different types of card sorting, and each is used in certain circumstances to gain an understanding of the user.

  • Open card sorting: Test participants are required to create their own category labels and sort the items according to the system they have established. This type of sorting is used to learn how users group things and how they label those groups.
  • Closed card sorting: Cards and category labels are provided. Participants are expected to match the cards to the predetermined categories. Use this to learn how users sort topics into a predefined set of categories.
  • Group card sorting: Multiple participants work together in a closed or open card sort. It is common practice to record these sessions as they tend to reveal many insights simultaneously. If possible, use this type of card sort after participants have had individual sessions.
  • Remote card sorting: Participants sort the cards independently on their own computers. You can do open or closed card sorts remotely. There are a ton of programs that cater specifically to remote card-sorting studies. Using dedicated software can be advantageous because it analyzes the data for you.

4. What tools do you need to conduct a card sort?

There are a few options available when conducting a card sort. You can create your own physical cards simply by using paper or cardboard. You can also utilize an online card-arranging program or even conduct a remote session.

Regardless of how you choose to conduct the sort, you’ll need to set some time aside for preparation. Be sure to obtain the proper amount of pens/pencils, paper, or cards needed to conduct the research. The materials should directly correspond to the number of subjects that need to be sorted, and the number of participants. Remember: if you’re conducting a closed card sort, you’ll need to take the time to create cards for the predefined categories.

If you’re using an online card sorting software, look into a few different programs; each one is unique and may offer certain features that others lack. A few online tools to look into are UserZoom, Optimal Workshop, and UsabilityTools.

5. How to conduct a card sort step-by-step

Now we know what card sorting is and why it’s so useful, let’s take a look at how to conduct a card sort.

Begin by writing down each item on an index card, Post-It note, or your own handmade card. Using pictures to replace or accompany text to represent your items is an effective alternative. Ask participants to arrange the cards into groups that are logical to them. If a closed card sort is being performed, give them the categories that the items need to be organized under.

Be sure not to interfere with the task in any way, but closely observe the user and occasionally inquire about their rationale. Asking the participant to verbalize their thoughts is a great way to get into the user’s head. They may tell you why they think various items should be grouped together or why a category should be labeled a certain way.

Depending on which type of sort you choose, there may be minor variations. For instance, if you are conducting a remote or computer based session, you may need to follow the steps the system you are using requires.

Lastly, analyze similarities and differences between each person’s card sort. If possible, record the entire session or photograph each participant’s results. Are many of the groupings the same or is each user’s card sort different? Are there similar categories but different topics in each? Why might there be parallels between two tests and why might they differ? These are all questions that should be asked when analyzing the data obtained.

6. Card sorting tips and best practices

If you’re new to the world of card sorting, here are some tips and best practices to bear in mind:

Do a trial run

Before you conduct your first card sort, run a test card sort with a friend or colleague to determine any typos, errors or misunderstandings that may occur. This step is important because missing these errors may result in having to throw out real user data.

Limit the number of cardsDo not expect the participant to sort all of your content, but allow the user to naturally stop; be aware the participant may experience severe cognitive overload. It’s recommended to have a maximum of 40 to 65 topics, especially for an open sort.

Number your cards

Consider numbering each card to better analyze them after the session. This will make using a table or spreadsheet for listing your topics easy to understand.

Keep the topic labels brief

The topics themselves should be short and to the point. This will ensure the cards are easy to read without compromising the content.

Start with the cards in a random order

Be sure to begin the session with randomly assorted content in order to provide a chance for subjects to be sorted without bias.

Provide a time estimate

To help participants better grasp the required time and effort needed to complete the card sort, present them with an estimated time it will take them to complete the task.

Use a mixture of both open and closed card sorting

Consider having a two part test with an open sort as part one and a closed sort as part two. Part one allows you to learn what users naturally put together, while part two allows you to test out your own labels and see if they are intuitive to your participants.

7. What comes next?

Understanding user behavior through research and testing is the first step in creating a site that delivers content efficiently and is enjoyable to use. Sometimes, one test is not enough. Don’t be afraid to re-test the information from your first session and conduct another card sort to further interpret the data. Once you understand how users make sense of content on the web, you can put together a product that is innate and easily operated.

If you’d like to learn more about the principles and processes of user experience design, check out the following articles:

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