Card sorting

Things you’ll need: Index cards, post-it notes, pens, a large table, 3-5 participants, an observer/note taker, a smartphone for pictures.

Estimated time: 60 minutes

Best to use when

Card sorts are a good way to figure out what to call things and how they should be organised so that users can find what they are looking for.

There are two types of card sorts:

Open - participants group content, ideas, needs and come up with a name for the category.

Closed - participants move content, ideas, and needs to already named categories. This is useful for later stages of the design process. This might be when initial rounds of sorting are already done or content needs to be revised with established structure already in place.

You can also think of these as two parts of the design process:

Use open sorts to understand what goes together and what it should be called. Use closed sorts to test, validate and revise what you already have with more people and other types of users.

Hybrid sessions are also useful. You provide categories but let people create new ones, and remove and rename categories if they feel it doesn’t fit into any of the existing ones.

Instructions

  1. Prepare category cards for each participant

    • Write categories on cards for a closed sort. You might have identified these through a quantitative/automated sorting, through discussion/design sprint or in previous card sort sessions.
  2. Prepare some content cards for each category (a set for each participant)

  3. Ask participants to group the cards in the way that makes sense to them and give the groups names

    • For a closed sort participants move content cards into categories you’ve prepared
    • A variation of ‘other pile’ and allowing participants to amend and create new categories are often useful particularly in the first round of sorting
  4. Discuss why they grouped the cards the way they did

    • This part is where the notetaker/observer must really listen for comments, reasoning and questions. Equally, the notetaker should take notes of comments and questions that arise as poeple work on the groupings.
  5. If there too many categories and time allows, you can try to get participants to reach a consensus

  6. Repeat

Things to remember

  • Quantitative vs. qualitative sorts An automated quantitative sort online can be a good start to identify categories. They can also be used to test your sort on a larger scale after the in-person sessions.
  • Granularity is important Pieces of content selected for the cards can be from individual pages, functionality, small groups of pages, or whole sections of the site. Be consistent with the groups you are working with otherwise participants will struggle and there will be a lot of inconditency between groupings.
  • People get tired Avoid the temptation to sort everything in one go. Limit the number to 30-40 cards
  • Consider the loudest voices When discussing the reasons for groupings and moving things around to reach a consensus, be mindful of the loudest people in the room and how this affects results
  • Randomise When giving participants a stack of content cards, make sure to randomise the order they’re in
  • Take lots of pictures Clearly mark these with the participant, date and number
  • Take notes in a way that is easy to analyse For tips on how to take notes for agile analysis see How we capture research data for agile analysis