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UX Research Method Spotlight: Card Sorting



We’re starting a new blog series here at Normal Modes that we’re affectionately referring to as the “UX Research Method Spotlight.” In this blog series we’re going to highlight our favorite (and most valuable) UX and usability testing methodologies. Each entry in the series will focus on a user research technique that we’ve found particularly helpful in the past. Our goal is to provide you with an overview of each technique as well as a discussion of the pros and cons of that particular research methodology. Most importantly, we’ll also discuss what types of research questions each technique does (or does not) answer and at the end we’ll provide a list of additional resources to get you going with that entry’s technique.

Keep your eye on our blog, webinar series, and UX resources and for our upcoming in-depth look at each analysis method.

Our first UX research method spotlight focuses on card sorting—a research methodology that should be in every UX researcher’s toolbox. Card sorting is a tool that helps UX researchers organize information in a way that is friendly and intuitive to users by having users sort topics into broad categories for the purpose of understanding how users mentally group those topics. By engaging actual users and looking for grouping patterns, UX researchers can use card sorting to help answer the following types questions:

  1. How should menu items be grouped?
  2. Does this information architecture make sense to users?
  3. Where would users look for a new topic area?

Card Sorting Overview

Card sorting gets its namesake from the manner in which the procedure is traditionally carried out. In a pen-and-paper card sorting exercise, participants are given a stack of physical cards, each with a word or short phrase printed on it, and asked to sort the cards into piles based on any similarities the participant identifies. These days, various software and web applications allow the entire procedure to take place electronically, even remotely—the namesake, however, remains.

There are two types of card sorting procedures, open card sorts and closed card sorts. During an open card sort, participants group words or short phrase into any number of categories as they see fit. Open card sorting is useful when you have a list of items or topic areas and you want to know how they should be grouped together.

Open Card Sort Example: You’re designing the site map for a brand new website and you want to know which pages to group together.


Closed card sorting is useful when you already have a set of predefined categories and you want to know how the topics being sorted fit into those categories. During a closed card sort, participants group words or short phrase into categories the researcher has already set up.


Closed Card Sort Example: Your website’s navigation menu already includes industry-standard categories but you need to know under which category to place several new topics.


Finally, deciding if or when you need to conduct a card sorting exercise is just as important as knowing what kind of answers you can get from card sorting. Here are some examples of when you’d want to consider conducting a card sorting exercise:

  • You’re getting support requests for features that already exist.
  • You’re building a new website and want to know how to organize it.
  • You’re redesigning a website and was to know how to organize it.
  • Your internal metrics show users are having navigational efficiency problems.


Card Sorting Procedure

The first two steps in any card sorting exercise go hand-in-hand: first you need to figure out what kind of sorting needs to be done and what items will be sorted. Here’s a quick and dirty rubric:


Are you trying to develop a navigational structure?
An open card sort would be appropriate here and your list of items will be based on the topics and sub-topics you’re considering.
Is your information architecture already in place?
A closed card sort would be appropriate here and your list of items will likely come from the current structure (plus any new ones).

You will also need to consider if your card sorting exercise be done electronically or pen-and-paper style? This will depend on things like:


  • Availability of participants
  • Budget & Timeline


The next two steps in a card sorting exercise also go hand-in-hand. After you’ve determined what needs to be sorted and how you’re going to do it, the next steps are to recruit actual users and have them start sorting.


Recruit your users: Reach out to your users and invite (or incentivize) them to help you with your card sorting exercise.


Have users start sorting your items: Give each user the list of items in a random order. Explain to users that they should start making groups based on any similarities they observe and don’t be afraid to give participants a little demonstration.


The final step in a card sorting exercise is to analyze and interpret the data and there a number of different ways to look the data your card sorting exercise generated. Keep your eye on our blog and webinar series for our upcoming in-depth look at each analysis method.


Item Analysis:

  • Items by Items
  • Items by Groups 

Cluster Analysis:

Participant Centric Analysis:

  • Popular Vote


Card Sorting Assumptions, Pros, and Cons

Card sorting, like all research methodologies, comes with number of assumptions, pros, and cons. Here’s a list of considerations when deciding whether or not to conduct a card sort exercise:


Assumption 1: Card sorting is only as helpful as the users you recruit. Like virtually all research methodologies, card sorting assumes that your selection of users is representative of all your users.


Assumption 2: The items your sorting have some innate similarities. Card sorting assumes that the data/items/words/phrases that your sorting aren’t completely random.


Pro: Card sorting can help you find relationships between content areas that were previously unknown. Often times users find interdependencies between categories that weren’t immediately obvious.


Pro: Card sorting can help your discover the mental model of your users. Using that mental model as a comparison tool for your existing information architecture can highlight user pain points.


Con: Card sorting requires recruiting comparatively more users than some other research methodologies. You’ll want at least 15 participants and more is always better.


Con: Card sorting is notoriously difficult to analyze and interpret. Items by items or items by groups analyses get unwieldy very quickly and cluster analyses can be quite involved without specialized software.


What do you think about card sorting? Did we miss anything?
Are you interesting in conducting a card sorting exercise for your website or application? Join our webinar on Card Sorting to learn just how easy it is.
Don’t have the resources to do it yourself? Normal Modes has the research experience and expertise to get you the answers you need. Get in touch to get started answering your card sort research questions today.