Card sorting

Use the card sorting method to help you understand how your users group information. This involves participants in the task of organising topics into categories that make sense to them. These insights will help you to arrive at your information architecture, or the structure of your site.

 

Card sorting will help you capture users' expectations and understanding of your content categories and topics. By allowing users to group information into categories that are logical to them you can: 

  • build an effective IA 
  • decide what to put on the homepage 
  • label categories and navigation in ways users understand 

Open and closed card sorting

You can use cardboard index cards, Post-it Notes, or online software. 

Open card sort 

Ask participants to organise topics from your website into groups that make sense to them. Then name each group in a way they feel accurately describes the content. Use an open card sort to learn how users group content and the terms or labels they give each category.  

Closed card sort 

Participants are asked to sort topics into pre-defined categories. A closed card sort works best when you want to learn how users sort content items into each category.  

Hybrid card sort

This is a combination of the two. You could conduct an open card sort first to identify content categories and then use a closed card sort to see how well the category labels work. 

How to prepare a card sort 

Prep time: 2 hours to 1 day 
People: 5-6 minimum 
Run time: 2-3 hours 

  • Write top level headings/labels from the different sections of your website on cards of one colour 
  • Recruit a mix of people from different user groups
  • Ideally, hold the activity in person so you can ask people why they made their choices
  • To hold an online session, you can use card sorting software to create a URL of the activity, so users can do the activity remotely

Materials 

  • A room with a large table 
  • Index cards in two colours 
  • Post-it notes in two colours 
  • Felt pens 
  • Brown paper and tape or blue tack to stick the final arrangement  
  • A camera to capture the results 

Prepare the cards 

Create your list of content topics

  • For a new site, list the content topics you are likely to have 
  • For an existing site, list the most important/popular types of content. To create this list: 
  • Review the content in your content audit 
  • Identify the most important or most frequently used content 
  • Write each topic on a separate index card or use a printed adhesive label
  • Number the cards in the bottom corner or on the back. This helps with analysis
  • Have blank cards of a different colour available for participants to add topics and name the groups they make as they sort the cards

Analyse your data

  1. Prepare your data for analysis.
    • If you used online card-sorting software, consult the software instructions.  
    • If you used physical cards, photograph each participant’s results with a smartphone. If not, record the names each participant gave to each grouping and the numbers of the cards the participant included under that name.  
    • Create a computer file for each session to gather a complete picture of the detailed site map each user creates. 
  2. Analyse qualitative information based on user comments. 
  3. Analyse quantitative information based on;
    • Which cards appeared together most often 
    • How often cards appeared in specific categories 
  4. For a less detailed analysis, use your notes and recordings of participants' names and card numbers under each person's name to find commonalities from different sessions.
  5. For a more detailed analysis, consider using an Excel spreadsheet to show the relationship between the cards or use one of the available software programs to analyse your data. 
  6. Pull together your findings in a report to share with your team and stakeholders. 

Best practice for card sorts

  • Limit the number of cards. Be mindful of participant fatigue. We recommend 30 to 40 at the most, especially for an open sort. 
  • Make sure you shuffle the cards between each session. 
  • Provide participants with an estimate of how long the card sort will take. 
  • Ask the participant to talk out loud while working. You want to understand their thoughts, rationale, and frustrations. 
  • If, at the end, the participant has too many groups for the homepage, ask if some of the groups could be combined. 
  • Let the participant work. Minimise interruptions. Allow the participant to: 
    • add cards - for example, to indicate lateral hyperlinks or additional topics 
    • put cards aside to indicate topics they would not want on the site 

Reference

Usability.gov

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