Card sorting

Online card sort conducted for a national industrial association.

A card sort is a user-centered method used to evaluate the organization or information architecture of websites, applications, and other digital products. In card sort studies, we give participants physical or digital versions of “cards” that contain labels representing navigation headings or content descriptions. People then sort these cards into groupings based on the way they think they should be organized or structured. We recommend card sorting to help reveal solutions for navigation labels, menu options, cross-links and other content strategy questions such as how deeply or broadly information should be organized.

Examples of the ways Blink has used card sorting on client projects include:

  • Observing how musicians, audio engineers, sound technicians and prosumers organize audio gear from stage mics and mixers to large stadium sound systems.
  • Understanding how consumers in several countries organize drinks and snacks for convenience food website menus.
  • Viewing the ways in which internal employees of a multinational corporation organize HR-related content, benefits and employee services.
  • Gaining insight into how consumers organize specific electronics products to create labels for an e-commerce website.
  • Learning how architects, engineers, and building developers organize content to recommend navigation labels for a national industrial association website (see photo).

We typically use two types of card sorts in our UX Research:

  1. In open card sorts, people sort cards into groups and then give each group a title or name.  These titles can then be used to compare against proposed or existing navigation labels. Titles themselves can be grouped and analyzed across participants to identify common ways of thinking about content.
  2. In closed card sorts, top-level categories are listed out for study participants, and they then sort the content cards into the categories. This method helps us understand how effective current category labels are.  For example, if we were doing a closed card sort for a grocery website, we might want to know how many times people place a card labeled “cookies” into a “Pastry” category versus a “Snack” category.

Card sort studies can be designed to be moderated by a user researcher or administered online using unmoderated card sorting tools. There are pros and cons to each approach. We have found moderated card sorts to be insightful in situations when we want participants to express their reasoning and opinions while talking us through their organization schemes. Moderated sorts are almost always performed with a small number of participants due to the cost of administering the sorts as well as the cost of recruiting in-person participants.

Unmoderated card sorts are beneficial when a larger number of users or widely dispersed users are desired to validate findings. In unmoderated card sorts, national or international research panels are utilized to recruit tens or even hundreds of participants who match target audience profiles. Results from unmoderated studies are best analyzed and interpreted by those with the research or information design skills to recommend a sound organization scheme based on resulting data and patterns. In unmoderated studies, we do not benefit from direct interactions with the people doing the card sorting, so we do not understand their in-the-moment thinking or reasoning.