Find out how your users categorize information—and why

Posted on April 22, 2020
3 min read


Step out of your shoes for a moment. Frank is about to design a new supermarket. Now, he's got a relatively tight budget, so he's probably looking to reduce material costs wherever possible. He might place the frozen food section next to the vegetables to cut down on cooling costs and arrange the shelves based on how easy it is for staff to restock shelves. It's not long before his new supermarket is operational – but there's a problem. Customers are having trouble finding the food items they need, and constantly getting lost in the aisles.

For all Frank's efforts to design and build an efficient, affordable new supermarket, he's forgotten one key element – the user. In failing to discover how people think different items should be arranged, he's created a raft of new problems.

Whenever you're about to build a new product, whether that's a mobile banking app or a new supermarket, you need to first ensure you're building it with quality user data. That starts with UX research.

Here, let's dive into one particular user research method that would've helped Frank design a user-focused supermarket; card sorting, and how you can combine tools to gather both quantitative and qualitative insights.

How to find out how people understand and categorize information

For those unfamiliar, card sorting is a user research technique that can help you discover how people categorize and understand information.

In a typical card sort, the participants sort cards containing different items into groups. You can use the results to figure out how to group and label the information on your website in a way that makes the most sense to your audience. Or, you could use the results to figure out how to arrange the items in a supermarket.

It’s best to run a card sort when you're trying to answer an information-related question. Let's say you want to add a new category for “activewear” to your online fitness store. Card sorting can show you where most people think this category should sit in relation to all of your other categories.

As you can probably guess, card sorting is a great place to start when you're about to build a new website. Instead of having to trust gut instinct and anecdotal evidence, you can use data from real people to build products that meet users' expectations.

Running a card sort is simple. Using an online card sorting tool (like OptimalSort), you simply set up the cards and categories (depending on the type of card sort you're interested in running) and send out the link to the study to your participants. Easy.

How to add qualitative insights to your card sort results

Running card sorting sessions is a great way to gather quantitative insights about the problem or product you're working on – but it's not so good at providing you with qualitative insights, or why people make certain decisions.

You can certainly host a card sort in person to capture this qualitative data, but this comes with its own set of issues. For one, you won't be able to gather quantitative data as you'd struggle to get the number of people in for any sort of meaningful analysis. We typically recommend anywhere from 20-30 people. It's also expensive. Hosting participants in person will often incur costs (gift cards, travel expenses, etc) and create additional work as you’ll have to print the cards out and prepare them. Not ideal.

So what's the best approach? Well, it requires a remote card sorting tool (like the aforementioned OptimalSort) and a platform designed to record users as they complete a card sort. That way, you'll get quantitative data from having 20-30 people complete a card sort and qualitative insights from watching and listening as they work through the task. You'll be able to get answers to questions like:

  • “Did people find any task particularly confusing?”
  • “Why did people group the cards one way and not another?”
  • "Why did certain people create categorizes while others did not?"

Using the right solutions to combine quantitative and qualitative insights

Optimal Workshop offers powerful unmoderated, remote user research tools – including a card sorting tool called OptimalSort. UserTesting offers an on-demand Human Insight Platform that quickly gives companies a first-person understanding of how their target audience behaves throughout any experience and why.

It's a good idea to have users record themselves using the UserTesting platform while they complete an online card sort using a third-party tool like OptimalSort. You can ask participants to think out loud as they complete the card sort, so you can observe their behavior and listen to their feedback as they work on the activity.

Used together, Optimal Workshop and UserTesting have an unrivaled user research service that delivers both qualitative and quantitative insights to make customer-centric decisions with confidence.

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