Card sorting is a technique that involves asking users to organize information into logical groups. This UX research method help designer to evaluate information architecture, workflow, menu structure, and/or website navigation paths. In a typical card sorting session, users are given a series of labeled cards and asked to organize and sort them into groups that they think are appropriate. To conduct a card sort, you can use actual cards, pieces of paper, or one of several online card-sorting software tools.
Card sorting is a relatively low-tech and inexpensive method used to understand how a user would organize and structure content that makes sense to them. Card sorting can be conducted in a number of ways such as actual cards, pieces of paper, Post-It notes or online tools such as Optimal Sort, which allow you to conduct the research remotely. This insight allows you to understand how users would expect to see content grouped on a website and how they might see these groups labelled.
Benefits of card sorting
While card sorting might not provide you with the final information architecture or menu for your site, it can help to identify trends and how many potential categories there could be. Let's see all the benefits:
Easy & Cheap — Card sorting studies are simple and cheap to set up for all the people involved.
Quick to execute — Several sorts can be executed quickly yielding a significant amount of valuable data.
Established — The technique has been used extensively for over 10 years.
Involves users — Studies provide insight into users’ psyche for website material and intuitive content grouping.
Provides a good foundation —Card sorting provides a robust foundation to the structure of a site or product, and as a method when investigating label quality.
Provides a good insight — Provides a good understanding of the users’ subconscious and how they would expect the information to be organized.
Like everything in life there are also some cons:
Results can be varied and there could be no real pattern in the data
Analyzing the results can be time consuming depending on the complexity of the data
Card sorting does not take into account users tasks and goals, so if the research is used without taking this into account, you could end up with a structure that is not usable for the user to complete their tasks on the site.
Card sorting methods
Here are a few different types:
Open card sorting — Users are asked to organize cards into groups that they feel are appropriate to them. They are then asked to name each of the groups they have created with a label that best describes that group. This method is commonly used for new/existing information architectures or organizing products on a site or when starting to create a new IA from scratch.
Closed card sorting — Users are provided with both the content cards as well as the category cards and asked to place the cards in these given categories. This method is normally used when adding new content to an existing site or gaining a second round of insights after an open card sort.
Card sorting can also be either remote or face to face:
Remote card sorting — When conducting a remote card sorting session a user will work independently via their own computers to sort the cards that are provided through an online software tool. There are a number of an online software tool available on the market today which allow you to set up and distribute to as many users as you require for the test. Some of the most common online software tools are Optimal Sort, Simple card sort, and Usability test. These online software tools provide you with several ways to analyze the data. As the test is conducted remotely there is no contact with the user so there is no way of understanding the reasoning behind why the user has arranged the cards in a certain way.
Face-to-face card sorting — Face to face card sorting sessions are in person with an observer present. Users are provided with a set of cards to move around and asked to talk through their thoughts and reasoning behind their decisions. The observer has the opportunity to clarify any observations they are unsure of to gain a better insight into why the user has made those choices.
Analyzing the data
Once collected, the data is analyzed to identify common trends. This is done by using cluster analysis software or if the sample size is small, by inputting the data into a spreadsheet to see if there are any patterns in the groupings or labelling.
Card sorting is a quick, simple and inexpensive way to gather insights about your users and their thoughts on groupings, categories, etc. This method works well at the beginning of projects if you are working on a redesign of a site and as a way of added new content to a site, but will not give you all the answers that you are looking for. However, when using card sorting along with other UX methods such as usability testing it can help you to find out some useful insights about users to get new projects up and running.