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Card Sorting: A Practical Guide for UX Professionals

Card sorting, especially online card sorting, has grown tremendously in popularity over the past years. In this article, we will explain what card sorting is, why it is performed and we will provide you with a clear roadmap for when you choose to perform card sorting yourself. 

Conduct card sorts Conduct navigation research

What is card sorting? 

Card sorting is a UX research method used to organize information. It is a technique in which participants sort cards (physical or digital) into different groups based on certain criteria. For example, this can be based on topic, relevance or complexity. In doing so, open or closed card sorting can be used.

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The advantages of card sorting

Card sorting is often used when designing websites and apps to optimize the information architecture. By asking respondents to sort the information in a way that they find logical, it provides insight into the ideal navigation structure. This reveals which categories and designations are most relevant and understandable. The insights can then be used to improve the usability of the website or app.

Card sorting offers several advantages for designers and researchers, including: 

  • Insight into users' mindsets. Card sorting gives designers insight into how users think and how they organize and categorize information. This insight can help designers make design decisions that meet users' needs. 
  • Improving the user experience. By using card sorting, designers and researchers can improve the user experience by organizing information and content in a logical and structured way. 
  • Increased user engagement. By involving users in the process, card sorting can help create a sense of ownership and commitment to the project, increasing the likelihood that they will be satisfied with the final design solution. 
  • Saves time and costs. Performing card sorting can help reduce the time and cost otherwise required to redesign information architecture. In fact, card sorting helps to avoid making wrong choices in information design and layout. 
  • More data points. Card sorting generates data that can be analyzed to identify trends and understand how participants categorize information. This data is valuable for informing further design decisions and can be used as a basis for making future design choices. 

The disadvantages of card sorting

While the value of card sorting is undeniable, there are also some drawbacks to using this research method. Of course, it is important to know about these and how to overcome them so that you can conduct thorough research. Below we explain this for you. 

One of the disadvantages of card sorting is that it can be difficult to analyze and interpret the results. This may be due to the difficulty in finding a consistent structure in the way participants categorize information. Another disadvantage is that sometimes participants are unable to find the right categories and organize information in a logical way. For example, because they do not fully understand what the cards mean. 

You can overcome this in several ways. First, it is important to give clear instructions to participants on how to organize the cards. To facilitate the analysis of card sorts, you can choose to use closed card sorting (explained below).  

In addition, it is useful to combine the results of card sorting sessions with other research methods, such as tree testing and/or usability testing. In this way, the results of different techniques can be compared and designers and researchers can gain more insight into how users think and organize information.  

Finally, it can also be useful to use different card sorting techniques, such as open and closed card sorting, to reduce the subjectivity of the results and obtain more consistent results. 

Card sorting methods and examples

There are three different card sorting methods: open, closed and hybrid card sorting. 

Open card sorting 

In open card sorting, participants are given a number of cards containing information and asked to sort them into their own groups based on their own criteria. Unlike closed card sorting, respondents can decide the categories themselves. 

There are a number of advantages of open card sorting, namely: 

  • It provides insight into how users classify information 
  • It provides the opportunity to discover new categories that designers had not previously considered 
  • It can be used to understand and match users' terminology with that used in the design 

However, there are some drawbacks, namely: 

  • It can take a long time to analyze and process the results 
  • It can be difficult to draw conclusions because participants may use different classification methods 

Open card sorting example

Click here to see an example of an open card sorting study. 


Hybrid card sorting

In hybrid card sorting, participants are given a number of cards containing information and asked to sort them into groups. This method combines elements of both open and closed card sorting. Participants are provided with some predetermined categories (like in closed card sorting), but they also have the option to create their own categories (like in open card sorting) if they feel that the provided ones are not sufficient or appropriate.

There are several advantages of hybrid card sorting, namely:

  • It provides a balance between designer’s perspective and users’ perspective.
  • It can reveal unexpected categories while also testing the validity of the existing ones.
  • It can be used to refine the structure of information while also discovering new ways of organizing it.

However, there are some drawbacks, namely:

  • It can be more complex to analyze because it includes both predefined and user-defined categories.
  • It may lead to confusion for the participants if the instructions are not clear.

Hybrid card sorting example

Click here to view an example of a hybrid card sort


Closed card sorting 

In closed card sorting, participants are asked to sort cards containing information into predetermined categories. This could be, for example, based on the navigation of a website. Some advantages of closed card sorting are: 

  • It is easier to analyze than open card sorting because the categories are predetermined 
  • It can be used to test and refine existing designs 

Some disadvantages of closed card sorting are: 

  • It provides less insight into how users organize information 
  • Unclear naming of the preset categories can negatively affect the results 

Closed card sorting example

Click here to see an example of a closed card sorting study. 

How to conduct a card sorting study

There are several ways to conduct card sorting, both online and on-site. The advantages and disadvantages of each method are described below. 

1 - Online card sorting tool

Online card sorting tools have gained popularity in recent years because of the speed and efficiency of the process. Tools such as those provided by User Sense can be used for this purpose. Some advantages of online card sorting are: 

  • It is easy to recruit respondents 
  • It offers the ability to analyze data in real time 
  • It can be done without participants having to be in the same location 

Some disadvantages of online card sorting are: 

  • It can be difficult to interpret non-verbal cues from participants 
  • In long tests it can be difficult to keep respondents motivated during the process 

2 - On-site card sorting 

On-site card sorting can be useful because participants can interact with the designers and provide more feedback on the design. Some advantages of on-site card sorting include: 

  • It provides an opportunity to interpret non-verbal cues from participants 
  • It can be more interactive and fun for participants 

Some disadvantages of on-site card sorting are: 

  • It can be expensive because of the cost of renting a location 
  • Inviting respondents on location is usually more expensive and time consuming 

3 - With a moderator (moderated) 

Card sorting with a moderator can be useful to help participants through the process and answer questions. Some advantages of card sorting with moderator are: 

  • It provides an opportunity to clarify ambiguities and guide participants 
  • If someone gets stuck during the test or does not know what to do, the moderator can assist 

Some disadvantages of card sorting with moderator are: 

  • Since the sessions are conducted with a moderator, the costs tend to be higher 
  • It can affect the results because the moderator may make suggestions that participants would not have considered otherwise 

4 - Without a moderator (unmoderated) 

Card sorting without a moderator can be useful because the results may be more pure and less influenced by a third party. Some advantages of card sorting without a moderator are: 

  • The results may be more pure and less influenced by a third party (e.g., the moderator) 
  • It is cheaper because there is no additional person involved 

Some disadvantages of card sorting without a moderator are: 

  • It may be more difficult to clarify ambiguities or guide participants 

Tips on how to conduct a card sorting study

Doing your own card sorting research? Below we have listed six expert tips for you.  

  • Make sure there are no overlapping terms or concepts between the cards. These are often grouped together, which could influence the results of the research. 
  • Make sure there are enough respondents (between 15 and 25) to get representative results. 
  • Offer participants the opportunity to add comments to gain more insight into their thought process. 
  • Use a mix of open and closed card sorting to get a more complete picture. 
  • Provide clear instruction to participants prior to card sorting to avoid confusion. 
  • After the card sorting study, conduct tree testing to determine if users are able to find information quickly and easily using the new navigation structure. 

Step-by-step plan when performing card sorting

Below we have put together a step-by-step plan for you when you want to get started with card sorting yourself. Would you like us to think along with you? Book a demo with us.  

  1. Define the purpose of the card sorting research and identify the subjects or categories to be researched. 
  2. Create cards with information about the topics or categories and print them out or feed them into an online card sorting tool
  3. Choose the card sorting technique (open, closed or hybrid) that best suits the purpose of the project. 
  4. Invite participants to participate in the card sorting and provide clear instructions about the process. 
  5. Have participants sort the cards and add comments if necessary. 
  6. Collect and analyze the results to gain insights into how participants organized the topics or categories. 
  7. Use the insights to improve the design or organization of the topics or categories. 
  8. Want to make sure the new layout is the right one? Then conduct tree testing with the new layout.

The link between card sorting and tree testing

After completing a card sorting study, it is common to conduct tree testing. During a tree test, users are asked to navigate through the new navigation of a website or application. This helps determine whether the information architecture of the website or application is logical and easy to use. Card sorting and tree testing are thus closely linked, because the insights from card sorting can be used to improve and test the navigation of the website or application using tree testing. 

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