Card sorting is a low-tech method designed to assist in evaluating the information architecture of a site. During card sorting sessions, participants are generally instructed to organize topics into categories that make sense to them. Card sorting can be conducted and a variety of ways that could include note cards, pieces of paper, or more recent online card sorting software tools.
Benefits of Card Sorting
• Quick, inexpensive, and reliable
• Helps label categories and navigation
• Helps outline the content structure for your site
• Highlights what content is most important to the user
• Provides insight into the user’s thought process while browsing (browsing paths, etc.)
Most card sorting sessions are conducted with participants who are representative of the typical users for the web content you are evaluating. Sorting can be used when designing a new site, a new area of a site, or when redesigning an existing site. Any given session should generally aim for 5 or 6 participants as this should provide enough variation in responses for effective analysis. While you can certainly have more participants, you’ll need to consider the additional time required to evaluate each set of responses. With this said, the benefits are eventually outweighed by the diminishing returns.
Open vs Closed Card Sorting
There are two primary methods for card sorting: open and closed.
Open Card Sorting
In an open card sorting session, participants create their own names for the categories. This helps reveal not only how they mentally classify the cards, but also what terms they use for the categories. Open sorting is typically used to discover patterns in how participants classify items, which in turn helps generate ideas for organizing information.
Closed Card Sorting
In a closed card sorting session, participants are provided with a predetermined set of category names. They then assign the index cards to these fixed categories. This helps reveal the degree to which the participants agree on which cards belong under each category. Closed sorting is typically used to judge whether a given set of category names provides an effective way to organize a given collection of content.
Conducting Card Sorting Sessions
Card Sorting can be conducted in a variety of circumstances using various techniques:
One-on-Ones are in-person sessions with an observer (generally the UX or IA specialist). Participants interact with the observer and generally talk out loud while sorting, giving a clearer picture of their reactions and thought processes.
- Pros: This type of sort may be completed with physical cards or with online card-sorting software and the facilitator looking on and asking questions as needed.
- Cons: There is potential for “hand holding” by the observer that may lead to inefficient and inaccurate results.
Concurrent In-person sessions have participants sort a set of cards independently. The facilitator may brief the participants at the beginning and debrief the participants at the end, but the participant works alone for most of the session.
- Pros: Because of the limited interaction, you can have many sessions at the same time with one facilitator. Sorting without an observer tends to generate more natural and honest results as there is less pressure or outside influence.
- Cons: You must have as many sets of cards as concurrent sessions or have each participant at a separate computer if using online card-sorting software.
Concurrent in-person sessions have participants sort a set of cards as a group. The facilitator may brief the participants at the beginning and debrief the participants at the end, but the participant together for most of the session.
- Pros: Working collaboratively, or as a team, may quickly bring about grouping and labeling of main content areas.
- Cons: Group dynamics might come into play and should be monitored. Peer influence can easily skew result.
Computer-based software sessions require participants to work independently. Participants sort the cards independently on their own computers. You can do open or closed card sorts remotely and several software programs exist to help you with large-scale remote card-sorting sessions. Using the software is an advantage because it analyzes the data for you, giving clear and concise visual data to support the results.
- Pros: Allows you to have many participants in many locations.
- Cons: You do not get information on why participants sort the cards the way they do, because you cannot see the participants or hear them thinking out loud. However, observers do have the option to watch remotely through a webcam and/or interact with the participant.
Card sorting can be quite instrumental in the early stages of site design. Seeing how a user processes and accesses the information on your site will provide a more efficient, easy-to-use final product. While card sorting is a simple and reliable method for gathering user input on a site’s structure, it isn’t foolproof and should always be weighed against the pros and cons of each project separately. As site architecture becomes more complex, card sorting tends to lose a portion of its value due to the time it takes to both conduct the sessions and analyze the data.
“Card Sorting.” Usability.gov. Usability.gov, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Spencer, Donna. “Card Sorting: A Definitive Guide.” Boxes and Arrows. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.