Card Sorting in UX (Everything You Need to Know)

Card sorting in UX is very simple to learn but astronomically beneficial to your product.


In fact, it’s one of my favorite UX methods to use as a UX designer because it’s simple, fast, and informative.


I’ll teach you everything you need to know to successfully conduct a card sorting session with users.

What is Card Sorting

Card sorting is a research method used to create or evaluate a site’s information architecture.


In other words, it helps you figure out how to structure your site by having your users show you how they would personally sort out the topics or categories of the site if it was up to them.


That way you’re not assuming they understand how the site is structured, but instead, they order and structure everything in a way that makes sense to them for you.


Some of the things you can decide through card sorting include:

  • Your main navigation menu items
  • Your homepage’s content
  • Content topics or categories


We’ll dive into the specific steps in the section: Card Sorting in UX | Step-By-Step Guide.

Advantages of Card Sorting

1. Card Sorting Leaves Out the Guesswork

Card sorting takes out much of the guess-work when it comes to planning the main structure of your site or product.


You get real-life proof from your real-life users, and so you have the foundation of your site while backed by evidence.


This helps you move forward with confidence.

2. Card Sorting is Not Expensive

It doesn’t take too much time with recruited users to do this exercise.


And from my experience, users tend to enjoy this exercise because they get to work with something tangible (i.e. marker and note cards) while feeling like they have a say in your product.


Whether you’re a wealthy, large corporation or a small, budget-conscious startup, card sorting can work well for you.

3. Card Sorting is Quick

Going along the lines of being relatively inexpensive, this is not an exercise that should take an extreme amount of time for your users to do.


Of course, the more categories that you have, the longer it will take your users, so be sure to plan ahead.


However, we warn against having sessions longer than one hour per user (although you can have them do it at the same time, which I’ll describe later).


If a session is longer than that, then users get what we call user fatigue (aka very tired–they’re not guinea pigs).

4. Card Sorting is a Flexible Research Method

We’ll be diving more into this later, but there are multiple types of card sorting, such as Open Card Sorting, Closed Card Sorting, and Hybrid Card Sorting. 


You have the flexibility to choose the specific method according to your research needs (like time and money).

Disadvantages of Card Sorting

1. Card Sorting Cannot Be Too Complex

If you have 100 categories, your user is going to be riding the struggle bus.


Remember, your users are only human, and so expecting them to sort out these extremely complex categories or item numbers will lead to user fatigue and a great flux of answers from different users.


You might be thinking–who would even do this?


Oh, it’s happened.


Believe me, I’ve heard horror stories.

2. Card Sorting Doesn’t Give a Perfect Answer

Card sorting can only give you so much information.


For example, you might be able to figure out how your major users will want to navigate your site, but your non-major users might prefer the navigation to be different.


It’s important to keep in mind that not all users are the same, therefore there is never a perfect, one answer.


And to add on top of that, what may work in 2020 might not be as intuitive in 2030.


As technology changes and people change, your site should also change.

Card Sorting in UX | Step-By-Step Guide

1. Choose the Type of Card Sorting You Want to Do

  • Open Card Sorting – You let the user write their own categories to sort each item into. 

  • Closed Card Sorting – You write the category names before-hand and have the user sort the items into your pre-defined categories.

  • Hybrid Card Sorting – Similarly to Close Card Sorting, you name categories before-hand and have the user sort the items into your pre-defined categories, but you let the user change the names of the categories, take away categories, or add categories.

2. Choose the Method to Conduct Your Card Sorting Sessions

  • Face-to-Face – This tends to be more costly than remote testing, but there is arguably more value to be in-person doing a session because you can physically interact with users if need be. Plus, it feels more human for the user.

  • Remote – With remote testing, you can test more quickly and cheaply. There are some online sources like OptimalSort to do this. You can also DIY it by having the user turn on a camera at home, point it at a table with cards and a marker, and tell you (while live) what they’re doing.

  • Group – I personally don’t like testing users in a group because I can’t give my attention to every person and dive deep to get insights, but some UX designers use the group method to move more quickly. However, if you need users to talk to each and come to an agreement, this could prove to be a useful method.

  • Individual – I prefer to do individual testing to gain more insight from each individual user I test with, but there is no right answer here.

3. Carding Sorting (in 7 Steps)

  • Set the topic of your card sorting. Choose the topic for your cards. There is no set limit on how many items you can have for your topic, but I personally recommend not going over 80 items (for your user’s sake–remember, there’s user fatigue).
  • Write one item on each note card. Try to avoid having words that are very similar on different items (note cards) because users will naturally try to group them together.
  • (Skip if Open Card Sorting) Organize note cards into categories. Group the note cards according to similarities, and then write down a category title for each group. Do it in a way you believe makes the most sense to your users. But remember, your users might end up moving things around, so don’t get too attached to how you organized things.
  • Have the user sort the cards into groups. Generally, you should set a limit of 1 hour for each card sorting session as to not tire your users out (and let them know how much time they have). Have your users talk out loud as they’re going through the process, and let them know they can change the placement of their cards whenever they want. If they don’t see a place to put an item or they’re confused on an item, tell them to put it on the side (which you can call a discard pile).

    If you’re doing a Closed Card Sorting, tell the user they can sort the items into whichever categories they believe the items most fit in to. A good tip is to have the note cards randomly shuffled and stack into a pile before letting the user start (as to not overwhelm them with 50 note cards spread out). With the category cards spread out before-hand (and the item cards in a pile), the user can place each item underneath the categories. I suggest having the category cards be a different color from the regular item note cards so to not confuse the items from categories.

    If you’re doing an Open Card Sorting, you can let users choose either to group the items first and then write category names for them, or write the category names after looking through the items, followed by grouping the items. I find that it’s better to let users decide instead of dictating the order for them.

    If you’re doing a Hybrid Card Sorting, follow the Closed Card Sorting rules, but let the users change the categories and/or their names as they see fit.
  • Ask the user about their rationale. It’s time to pick their brain. I suggest starting with an open-ended question like, “So why did you choose to organize the cards as you have?” This will probably lead you to more questions and answers. And if users left cards to the side in the discard pile, ask them why.

  • Repeat steps 1-4 with about 14 more users. There is no rule on this one, but less than 15 users tend to leave you with not enough overlapping data and more than 15 users tend to give you diminishing returns (i.e. wasting time and money).

  • Analyze the data. What you need to do after all your card sorting sessions is find overlapping patterns from the different users. These patterns are what will tell you how your users think and will likely be the best way to organize the information architecture of your site.

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