Card Sorting Defined

Card sorting can be described as a technique that is used to help structure, improve or define the menu and taxonomy of a website or product. This is mostly used by information architects and other professionals who are related to this.

This can be conducted, remotely, online or using large sample of participants that will help you achieve statistical significance. It is considered an inexpensive, quick and reliable method that serves as input for a person’s design process. It generates an overall structure for information as well as great suggestions for menus, navigations and possible taxonomies.

The main aim of card sorting is to increase a system’s findability using the method that is user centered. It involves sorting a number of cards series where each is labeled with piece of content or sometimes functionality into various groups that normally make sense to participants/users.

This helps to reveal the patterns that users would expect to find in terms of functionality and content. Patterns are referred to as mental model and by understanding this it helps to make a product easier to use.

Card sorting study can be quite valuable to any UX team. This is because a card sort that has been well designed can be used to generate a dendrogram (diagram) that groups various items into different clusters based on their relationship. The clusters can be used as the base for enhancing the structure of a site. In addition to this the study can help define a new structure or improve an existing one.

It can also give insight on how to categorize and organize information. It does not require moderation that can be created fast and it’s very simple to collect data from more than fifty participants. It’s also important to note that it helps users to save money since it is more effective than using lab testing. This is because there is no need for research moderation, lab space or compensating the participants for traveling.

There are two main methods that are used for card sorting: 

Open card sorts: this is where participants are given cards that show website content without any pre-established groupings. They are requested to sort the cards in groups they think are most appropriate and describe them. This is ideal when you are looking for information about existing products or sites.

Closed card sorts: participants here get cards that show site content with an already established initial set of various primary groups. Participants are requested to place the cards in the groups. This is beneficial when you want to add new content to a structure for gaining additional feedback after the results from the open card sort.

There are numerous advantages 

  • Cheap: it costs 3×5 index cards, printing labels/pen, sticky notes and your time.
  • Simple: it is pretty simple for participants and organizer.
  • Established: this has been used successfully by designers for more than a decade.
  • Quick to execute: a short period of time can be used provide a large amount of data.
  • Provides good foundation: offers great foundation for the structure of the product or site.
  • Involves users: card sorting is based on the real input from the users and not strong opinions, gut feelings of the key stakeholder, designer or information architect.

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Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)walkme.com
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