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Card sorting: user feedback for designing people-first information architecture

Steven Carr  |  December 18, 2020

There’s something satisfying about the term, card sorting. Something only those with a penchant for organizing and categorizing things might understand. And that’s because it hints at an outcome that’s both useful and systematic—which is exactly what you’d need if you were redesigning a website, building out a new app, or pivoting to meet changing customer needs.

What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a qualitative research method used to group, label, and describe information more effectively, based on feedback from customers or users.

card sorting definition

Most commonly, card sorting is used when designing (or redesigning) the navigation of a website or the organization of content within it. And that’s because it helps to evaluate information architecture—or the grouping of categories of content, the hierarchy of those categories, and the labels used to describe them.

Like many user research techniques, the goal of a card sort is to get inside your user’s heads. That way, when you’re making design choices, you’re basing decisions on qualitative data rather than hunches or gut feelings. And by seeing and hearing your users perform a card sort, you can better speak their language and meet their needs.

Card sorting is useful if you’re trying to: 

  • Increase the findability of content on your website
  • Discover how people understand different concepts or ideas
  • Find the right words to form your navigation
  • Adapt to customer needs and surface the most important information

The list goes on, and people are always coming up with innovative use cases for card sorting, but let’s continue with the basics.

What are the different types of card sorting?

Card sorting requires you to create a set of cards—sometimes literally—to represent a concept or item. These cards will then be grouped or categorized by your users in ways that make the most sense to them. For best results, you’ll need to decide if it makes sense to run an open, closed, or hybrid card sort. There’s a case for each:

  • Open card sortParticipants sort cards into categories that make sense to them and label each category themselves
  • Closed card sort: Participants sort cards into categories you give them
  • Hybrid card sort: Participants sort cards into categories you give them but may also create their own categories if they choose to

Which one you choose will greatly depend on what you want to find out and what you’re already working with.

Open card sort

An open card sort gives your users the most authority to group and categorize information how they see fit. Because once they’ve organized the cards into groups, they will then have to name each grouping—providing maximum insight into the user’s brain.

open card sorting example

If you’re unsure how to design or categorize your website, an open card sort can help. It provides feedback from your users about what they find relevant and necessary to group. With these groupings, you can make your website more attuned to your user’s interests and needs. 

Closed card sort

A closed card sort is useful when the labels for something are prescribed or have already been set. In this scenario, your users would be responsible for organizing the cards into a sitemap that already exists.

closed card sorting example

Ultimately, its purpose is to gain insight to see if your existing categories seem logical to your users. As a bonus, it’s also great if you need to add a bunch of new content to a site or if existing content needs to be reorganized.

Hybrid card sort

In a hybrid card sort, participants will be sorting cards into categories that you provide and can add their own. Normally, researchers will use this technique when they already have some categories established but would like their customer’s input as to what the others should be.

Is card sorting qualitative or quantitative in nature?

In it itself, card sorting is a quantitative process. The main quantitative data output from a card sort is a set of similarity scores that measures the similarity of how users grouped their sets of information. In other words, if all users sorted two cards into the same pile, then the two items represented by the cards would have 100% similarity. If half the users placed two cards together and half placed them in separate piles, those two items would have a 50% similarity score. So on and so forth. There’s additional quantitative data that the test provides too—like the time it takes to complete, for example.

However, card sorting can also provide qualitative data in the form of user commentary, body language, and facial expressions. And there’s inherent value in watching participants complete a card sort. Beyond body language, observers can notice things like where participants get stuck, when they reconsider their card placement, and more. This all can be observed by a researcher and recorded for overall consideration when making decisions later.

Conduct a remote card sorting test with UserTesting

Previously, in-person card sorting was the favored method of testing (over remote) because it allowed researchers to gather qualitative customer insights in addition to the quantitative. Now, there are a number of tools that let you perform card sorting tests remotely, but they don’t allow you the option for capturing the qualitative.

Why should you run your card sort via UserTesting?

Through the power of the Human Insight Platform, running your card sort via UserTesting can deliver both qualitative and quantitative insights.

  • Card sort results will help you understand how people think your content should be grouped. You can use the results of the card sort to quickly spot popular groupings and categories and use this information to build a better website or app.
  • Recordings of the participant sessions will give you qualitative insights. In the video you receive, you’ll be able to watch your user complete the test, as well as see and hear a recording of them completing it. Through this approach, you’ll gain answers to questions like “Did people find any task particularly confusing?” and “Why did people group the cards one way and not another?” As a bonus, our feature for suggested sentiment makes it easy to find where participants stumble during the test.

Why not use card sorting?

Good question. If you’re looking to organize content in a meaningful and user-centric way, then running a card sorting test is a smart move. Without insights from your users, it’s tough to really know if you’re designing your site or app intuitively for them. Remember, a good user experience almost always translates into good results for your business.

Card sorting is included with our Ultimate Edition subscriptions. For customers on our Advanced, Pro, Premium Editions, card sorting can be added for an additional cost. Please contact your account team for more information.

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About the author:

Steven is a Content Strategist at UserTesting. When he’s not inserting oxford commas where they belong, you can find him shooting pool at a local dive or building killer playlists on Spotify.