Card Sorting 101 – Card Sorting Basics
Information Architecture

Published on October 30, 2020

Card Sorting 101 – Card Sorting Basics

This guide will help you to understand the basics of card sorting. Answer questions: What is card sorting? What different types there are, and when to use them? What can you learn with card sorting?

If your goal isn’t to confuse your user and drive them mad, the content on your website must be organized following user expectations. To learn what those expectations are and gain an understanding of how your website’s users think, you can use card sorting.

What is card sorting?

Card sorting or card sort is a research method allowing researchers to figure out how people conceptualize and categorize the information found on your website. In simple terms – it lets you find out how to group and label your content, so it makes sense to your users.

Why should you care?

The collected insights will help you with labeling and grouping content. With this knowledge, you will be able to build an information architecture where users can find what they’re looking for effectively.

When is a good time to use Card Sort? 

  • When you’re creating a new website, a section of a website or you’re trying to improve an already existing one
  • When you want to make sure that the information on your website is grouped intuitively and logically for your users
  • When you want to find out how people understand certain concepts. To find out whether there are groups of people who understand the same concept differently
  • When you want people to divide some items into groups for you

As the name suggests, card sorting involves giving respondents the task to sort a set of cards into categories. Each card contains a text label that usually represents a piece of content from your website. You want the respondents to sort these cards according to their own opinion and personal sense.

Depending on how people can sort cards into categories, there are three types of card sort: open, closed, and hybrid.

Types of card sort studies

There are different types of card sorting to use in different scenarios. You can find all of them in the card sorting tool – CardSort.

  1. Open card sorting – Respondents sort the cards into categories they created and named. You provide respondents with cards only. If you have never been part of card sorting, you can try it as a respondent in our demo studies. Try Open CardSort study.
  2. Closed card sorting – Categories are prepared by the researcher Respondents don’t create categories, only fill them with cards. Try Closed CardSort study.
  3. Hybrid card sorting – Categories are prepared beforehand by researchers, but respondents can create their own categories if they feel the need. Try Hybrid CardSort study.

Choose the right technique

Before you create your first card sorting and you can start using CardSort in your design process, you should first know all three card sorting techniques (open, closed, and hybrid) and demand a different type of mental activity from respondents. Each one requires that respondents look at the content differently.

When should you decide on an open card sort?

In an open card sort, the groupings that people create show you how people conceptualize the content when they’re not limited by pre-set boundaries.

  • When you lack knowledge about how people perceive the information on the website.
  • When you want to know where on the website users expect certain content to be.
  • When you want to get some inspiration for labeling and grouping content on the website.
  • When you want to find out if there are different groups of people who understand the content of the website differently and would look for the same content in other places.

When should I decide on a closed card sort?

In a closed card sort, respondents don’t have to think about the groups themselves. Instead, they can focus on how to divide up the cards into the groups that you’ve provided.

  • When you want to know if people would sort a piece of information into the same category as you would.
  • When you want to find out whether your categories are a good representation of their contents, or if they’re ambiguous, confusing and people conceptualize them differently.
  • When you have different variants of categories, and you want to decide on which ones to use in your design, depending on how intuitive they are.

Hybrid card sort is a flexible technique of its own that blurs the line between open and closed card sort, loses some of their specializations, but gains its perks, uses, and benefits.

Each technique is ideal for use under different conditions, and picking the right one is essential for getting the data that is relevant to you. If you are looking for more information about this topic, and interested to learn how to analyze the results of all card sorting methods explained with the case study, read our – The definitive guide to creating effective CardSorts.

Preparing cards and categories 

When it comes to the fate of a card sort study, it all depends on what’s in the cards. How you choose the labels of your cards, as well as how many cards there are in total. In general, the ideal number of cards in one card sort is between 30 and 60.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind when preparing a card sorting study:

  • Avoid having too few cards so you can collect enough data from the respondents.
  • Fewer than 30 cards make it hard for grouping to emerge as fewer cards provide less context for the respondents to form a big picture.
  • Having to think about which cards to include in the card sort is a good thing for deciding which of the cards are the most relevant.
  • The more cards in your card sort, the more time consuming the card sort, making respondents more likely to abandon your study before they’re finished.

What can you learn with Card Sort?

Card sorting is a very versatile research method. You can use card sort to:

  • Compare your website structure with how it’s structured in the heads of your users 
  • Find out how people group products in your e-shop 
  • Generate ideas for tagging and categorizing your blog articles 
  • Generate ideas for structuring your help center 
  • Research what priorities customers assign to selected features, services, or products
  • Find out what types of articles your audience is most interested 
  • Discover which content of your website is going to most popular
  • Research how your customers view your company 
  • Get fast feedback on your designs from the team or customers 
  • Set priorities for features, products, and services 

And much more – our creativity is the only limitation here.

Conclusion

Card sorting is an incredibly useful method when it comes to information architecture research. It helps you to understand how users think about the information on your website. Cart Sorting is valuable in helping you to organize content, so it is according to your user’s ideas and expectations rather than your own. To learn more about card sorting, visit our Definitive guide to effective Card sort.

For better results, it is best to combine card sorting with another information architecture research method – Tree Testing. You can read about how to use them together in your Card sorting & tree testing = best friends.

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