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Let’s talk about organizing things today. In this article, Card Sorting: Your Complete Guide To Better Design And Information Architecture, we will be talking about how card sorting works, why is it important as part of our UX research, how it can help in improving your UX research and website usability, and what are the different methods of card sorting.

Specifically, we will also cover the following topics below:



What is the card sort method?

Card sorting is an organizational technique used for assessing and designing the navigation and structure of a website or an application. 

In a card sort session, participants are given a random list of items such as all the products that will be placed in a navigation menu, and they are tasked to group the items in a way that makes logical sense to them.

Participants may also ask to choose the names for the groups they put together, forming the possible categories and subcategories of a website or app, depending on the type of card sorting method used.

The purpose of this is to hopefully create an easier, more logical, and user-friendly way of navigating the website or app.

Card sorting is related to tree testing, which is also another type of usability test. The tree testing is in fact often referred to as the “reverse card sorting” method because it asks users to seek out information rather than group them. 

Card sorting and tree testing can be used together to provide a better design and user experience.

I won’t be discussing tree testing here but I have covered an in-depth tree testing method in this article if you want to learn more about this method and how you can use this method together with the card sorting technique


Information architecture (IA) and card sorting

You probably hear the term, information architecture when you do any usability testing, including card sort method. 

This phrase simply refers to the way the content is presented and accessed from any page in your website or application. Whether the user is going through the menus, breadcrumbs, categories, or links, whatever it is that will take the user from one section to the other on your web page or app. 

In short, information architecture is an organizational practice of categorizing sections in a way that makes sense to the users. 

In information architecture, it focuses on the following areas:

Structure- is the way the information is laid out in a way that makes sense to the users

Organization- is the sorting out of information in a way that the groups that make sense to the users are chosen

Labels- is ensuring that elements are properly named so users can easily find the information

Good information architecture is where people fully understand where they are, what is around the page, and what to expect.

Thus, one of the ways to help your visitors find their bearings on any page of your website is to provide them with clear, comprehensive, and logical ways of navigation and this is where the card sort method comes in.


The advantages of card sorting


Validation of organization, structure, and labeling

As previously discussed, the card sort method is a usability test that you can conduct in order to validate the effectiveness of your website’s organization, structure, and labeling.

This method will help you in deciding how to label categories and navigation, arrange subcategories under the parent categories, decide where to go on the page, and figure out where users are lost or confused. 


Improve information architecture and navigation

One of the best benefits that you will get from the card sorting method is that you can build and improve your navigational area by how users navigate on your website and its information architecture, rather than just merely guessing the navigation yourself.

Assuming the right categories and information architecture is not a good practice. For example, you can assume people will find the potato chips and chocolates under the snacks area, but these people can also go looking under the canned section.  


Easy, quick, and cheap

Another benefit of card sorting is that it is easier to arrange, this method does not take long, and the materials are not expensive.


The disadvantages of card sorting

When it comes to the card sort method, you need to be mindful of certain things:


Inconsistent results

Expect the results will be different in every test. It is but natural to have several differences in results depending on the person or group. So card sorting is just like any other user testing. There is no guarantee that you will get some consistency in terms of results. However, the insights that you will gather from this test will give you a solid foundation to build proper information architecture.


Analyzing results is time-consuming

I have mentioned that one of the benefits of card sorting is it is easy and fast to set up. While that is true, analysis of results can be time-consuming.


Participants only know a little of the content

When doing the card sorting method, bear in mind that your participants only know the surface details of the content, which is the title or headline. They have no idea what the content is about. And because of this, they may have misunderstandings in choosing between cards, especially if this is a niche subject. 


Different types of card sorting


There are several types of card sorting methods you can see. Let us discuss each one of them:


Open

The open card sorting method is where a participant creates the categories and adds concepts that are missing. This method of card sorting works well for generative and exploratory work.

This method is more flexible and allows for a more accurate portrayal of a user’s mental models. It can also provide new terms that can make their way into the project and therefore, helps the team expand their understanding of the users and how users interact with the given concepts. 

Thus, depending on how the researcher wants to structure the study, the new cards from the participants can be included or left out. 

Some pros of using the open card sort method include: 

  • more accurate insight of the user’s mental models
  • more flexibility
  • good use for generative phase of a project

Some cons of using the open card sort method include:

  • less control 
  • getting a lot of answers that may not result in patterns that make sense
  • bad method to use for evaluative phase of a project


Closed

The closed card sorting is where the participants are limited to using only the given card sorts. The closed card sorts method is better for evaluative approach, wherein the terminologies and concepts are established. 

This closed card sorting method is likely to result in more clear patterns that indicate which concepts are suited best to which categories.

Some pros of using the closed card sort method include: 

  • more grouping patterns in results
  • more controlled
  • a good method for evaluative phase of a project

Some cons of using the closed cart sort method include: 

  • less flexibility
  • less accurate portrayal of users’ mental models
  • bad use for generative phase of a project


Hybrid

The hybrid card sorting method begins as a closed card sort. However, it allows participants sort and create categories that are missing from the card deck (open card sorting).

The advantage of the hybrid card sort model is we cover all the cons that we may encounter when we only do one method of sorting: open or closed. 

One of the biggest concerns in closed card sorting is when there is the possibility that we have excluded a relevant concept. 

The rule of the thumb in card sorting is we never assume that we know everything. Also when talking to technical users, this point becomes more important. 

The hybrid card sort method offers participants the opportunity to suggest missing terms and categories.

Another advantage of using the hybrid card sort method is how users designate the category cards, which are separate from other cards. The card sorts could be in separate decks or are physically set up from the other cards.  


Methods available for card sorting


Remote

The remote card sorting method refers to computer-based sessions, where participants sort and work independently on their own systems. 

You may conduct open or closed card sorting in a remote environment with the use of several online card sorting software programs to help small-scale to large-scale sorting studies. 


Face to face

The face-to-face sorting session happens in person and where there is an impartial observer present. 

The participants are given a set of cards and they think out loud while they are sorting the cards, which gives a clearer picture of their reactions and thoughts. 

The observer can intervene to clarify any observations they are unsure of in order to understand how users mental models are and why users made those choices. 


Steps in setting up your card sorting test


Card preparation

1. Start by creating a list of topics. These topics can be phrases or words, general or more specific. You can just limit your list to 50-60 topics or less. Expect that you might not have a card for every page on your website. 

2. Decide the method of whether you would like to do a face to face or remote card sorting session. 

If you would like to use the remote session, get a more suited online card sorting software and consult support for instructions on how you utilize their online tools.

If you decide to conduct your card sorting face to face, better write each topic on a separate index card. 


Session set up

1. You should have at least an hour for each session. You can have longer hours depending on the number of cards you have.

2. Remember to also plan the space. For face to face, after you recruit participants, make sure that each participant has enough room to spread the cards on a table. For remote sessions, make sure that each participant has a good internet connection, with a room for the participant and the facilitator to work remotely but comfortably. 

3. It is a good idea to have another team member who can take notes as the participant conducts the card sorting and thinks out loud. 

4. For other sessions, you may arrange payment or incentive to thank the participants for spending their time helping you with the card sorting test.


Leading the session


For face to face

1. Start by explaining to your participants the set of physical cards. You can say that you are asking for their help to find the categories of information that they think should be on the website’s homepage, for example, and what those categories should be labeled. 

2. You may ask the participant to talk out loud while working on the physical cards so you can understand how users organize and rationalize their thoughts and also know the problems that may occur in a card sorting session.

3. Let your participants work, however, minimize other interruptions. You can allow participants to add cards or place the cards aside, whatever he or she thinks should be included or excluded on the site’s page.

3. In case the participant has too many groupings on the homepage, you may ask if the participant for groups that can be combined.

4. When asking the participant to name each category:

  • In an open card sort, you can give each participant a stack of colored cards and ask the participant to name each group. For an open card sort method, you can ask what words the participant would expect to see on the page or second-level page that would lead them to a particular group of content items.
  • In a closed card sort, you can ask the participant about word expectations, their final card organization, and other follow-up questions to get valuable insights and observations.

5. At the end of the session, thank your participants by giving them payment or incentive.


For remote

1. Start by preparing the cards based on the software instructions. 

2. Email the participants with a link to your study. Be sure that you provide them with instructions (whether it is for open or closed card sort) and let them know how long the session will be for them to complete it. 

3. If there is a comment box, utilize it and encourage your participants to use that field to record any observations and questions. It is also useful if you can answer them in real-time.

4. Thank the participants at the end of the session. You can provide them with payment of incentive.


Data analysis

1. Prepare the data for analysis. 

If you use remote sessions with the help of card sorting software, then the software should be able to provide you with the analysis of data.

If you use face to face method, you may either take a photo of the card sorts or use the number on the cards to quickly record the data or your card sorting results. Do not forget to properly record everything from the names of the participants to their groupings and labels.

2. Analyze qualitative insights and information based on user comments and user experience

3. Analyze quantitative information based on the card sorting results that appear together most often and how the cards appear in specific categories.

4. If you want a less detailed analysis, you can use your notes and recording and check the participants’ names and card numbers under each person’s name to find some commonalities in different card sorting sessions.

5. If you want to get a more detailed analysis, you may want to use an Excel spreadsheet to show the relationship between the cards or use one of the available software tools to help you analyze the data for better user experience.

6. You can put together all your findings and analysis to share them with your team members and stakeholders.


Card sorting best practices


Limit the number of cards

While it is tempting to let the participant sort ALL of your content, it is in your best interest to limit the cards in any card sorting session. Too many cards will just bring in fatigue to your participants. 

It is recommended that you have 30-50 or fewer cards at most, especially for an open card sorting method.


Randomize the order

If possible, try to shuffle and arrange the cards in random so that each piece of content has a chance to be sorted out in each session.


Inform the session timeline

Before you begin, provide the participants an idea of how long they will have to spend on card sorting sessions to help them better gauge the required time and effort.

Encourage the participants to complete the card sorts

You should consider the benefits of requiring your participants to complete the card sort. In an open card sort session, if possible, require your participants to sort the cards but not label them since this may become the challenging part of the task, given that you have limited the items as suggested previously. 


Try to do the hybrid method

If possible, consider an open card sort as part 1 and a closed cart sort as part 2 of your card sorting test. Part 1 will allow you to learn what goes together, and part 2 will test your labels to see if these are intuitive to your participants.


Conclusion

Card sorting, whether it is open closed and hybrid, is a quick, easy, simple, and inexpensive way to get insights from your users with regards to the way they group, categorize and label content on your website or application. This usability test works well at the beginning of your projects, in a redesign of a site, and if you plan to add new content to a website or webpage. 

However, card sorting is not the sole solution for the answers that you are looking for. You may use card sorting with other UX methods such as usability testing to help you find more useful insights about your users to improve your UX and get your new projects up and running.

Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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