Card sorting

Card sorting involves participants organising topics into categories that make sense to them. These insights will help you understand how your users group information. 

 

Why use card sorting

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 on the structure of your site
  • decide what to put on the homepage 
  • label categories and navigation in ways users understand

When to use it

When your writing, organising and managing content on your site. 

Types of card sorting

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

Open card sort 

Use an open card sort to learn how users group content and the terms or labels they give each category.

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. 

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 

 

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

 

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

Before you begin

Follow best practice to prepare for your card sorting activity. 

  • 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
  • Provide participants with an estimate of how long the card sort will take.

  • Limit the number of cards. Be mindful of participant fatigue. We recommend 30 to 40 at the most, especially for an open sort. 

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

During the card sort

Ask the participant to talk out loud while working. You want to understand their thoughts, rationale, and frustrations.

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

Best practice is to make sure you shuffle the cards between each session. If, at the end, the participant has too many groups for the homepage, ask if some of the groups could be combined. 

Analyse your data

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. 

Analyse qualitative information based on user comments. 

Analyse quantitative information based on;

  • Which cards appeared together most often
  • How often cards appeared in specific categories

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.

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.

Pull together your findings in a report to share with your team and stakeholders. 

Reference

Usability.gov

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