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Card Sorting — what is this research method?

Illustration of, laptop, notebook, person reading

Tab sorting is a simple and relatively cheap method that is designed to help you understand how to structure and organize content by the user in the most logical way possible for him. Card sorting can be carried out in many ways, including on paper, Post-It notes or thanks to online tools operating in remote mode.

What is card sorting?

Sorting cards allows you to understand the mindset of users. It gives an idea of what users expect — how they would like to see content on the site and how they would group it on their own. Although it is not a research method, most often used by UX designers, which ensures the creation of the final version of the information architecture. It also provides a great hint when it comes to creating categories and makes it easier to identify trends.

Among the methods of sorting cards can be distinguished:

Open sorting

The task of users is to organize the cards into groups that, in their opinion, are most adequate. Then they give them a suitably fitting name. This method is most often used for information architecture that already exists, when organizing products on a site or creating a completely new architecture.

Sorting closed

Users receive content tabs and pre-imposed category tabs. Their role is to organize these cards into the appropriate categories. Closed sorting is a method used when adding new content to an existing site.

Free list

The free list method assumes the work of each user on his own computer and sorting the cards that he will receive online. There are many tools for the test that can be distributed to any number of users. Sorting of cards of this type is carried out remotely, without contacting the user.

Face à face

Research takes place in person, with the participation of an observer. Users are given cards in paper form, they are also asked to explain the decisions made. So the observer can clarify with the user all the points that are unclear to him.

Card sorting — how should the test go?

The research group should include more than a dozen participants, which allows to obtain the highest possible level of correlation significance. The task can be assigned both individually and in groups. The first method is most often used in research conducted remotely. It works at a time when researchers need knowledge, acquired from a large group of users. The big advantage of this type of research is that the participants are in a safe environment for each other. They do not succumb to pressure and feel at ease, which affects the achievement of quality results.

For traditional studies, a large number of participants is also important. The level of creativity then increases, brainstorming is possible, which often ends up getting great ideas. In addition, the analysis of the conclusions is very effective. Participants can freely communicate, exchange ideas and create unusual solutions together.

How should the card sorting process be carried out?

Sorting cards should be carried out according to a certain scheme.

  1. On the notes, write down the elements of the page or subpage.

For example, in the case of a shoe store, these will be products such as wedge shoes, sandals, sneakers, moccasins, running shoes, etc.

  1. Ask the study participants to pre-analyze the products and sort the notes into the groups that seem most logical to them.

Do not disturb users in the process. From time to time, you can ask them about the rationale for the opinion.

  1. Ask the study participants to come up with a name for each of the groups.
  2. Make an analysis and determine the patterns of categorization.

Check the differences and similarities among the answers of each participant. You will certainly succeed in creating the most suitable pattern.

Card Sorting — Best Practices

When carrying out card sorting, it is worth using some tips that can improve your research:

Trial sorting

Before starting activities, it is worth conducting a trial sorting, for example with friends or colleagues. This will allow you to search for and remove any errors or typos that may interfere with the smooth running of the tests.

Limit the number of cards

Although a sufficiently high number of cards is very important, you can not overdo it. In the case of open sorting, it is a good idea to limit the topics to about 60. Then the user will not feel overwhelmed by the abundance of information.

Card numbering

Easier analysis will be guaranteed by card numbering, so it is worth considering this practice. Using a spreadsheet or table to display a list of all topics will be easier to understand.

Establishing short label topics

Short and strongly related to the topic of etiquette is the key to success. They can be read more easily.

Random order of cards

The research session should begin with content selected at random. As a result, they will be segregated without any prejudice.

Estimation of time

At the beginning, it is worth determining the time that participants will need to complete the project.

Open and closed sorting

A good idea is to combine two types of tests — open (first) and closed (second). The first will allow you to check the analytical path of users, and the second - to test existing labels and their intuitiveness.

How to choose the right number of cards?
The number of cards should be selected according to the type of study. It is worth considering what the purpose of the site is and only then think about how many cards are needed to conduct tests. To do this, a different kind of research needs to be done that will show analysts what to focus on.

Card sorting — interpretation of results
If software programs are used for the study, the analysis is performed automatically. However, if a piece of paper and a pencil were used during the activity — a slightly more thorough, independent analysis should be carried out.

The results of the conducted studies are often presented in dendrograms, of course — if a large number of respondents took part in them. However, not everyone wants to use this method, since dendrograms are often difficult to interpret. So it's worth use spreadsheet and consider for yourself what conclusions can be drawn from the research. If the research sample was small, these steps may prove to be a little easier.

How to use card sorting?

It is common for researchers to use closed sorting as a survey method to verify the existence of categories on a website. They check if they are in line with the assumptions. However, this is not a method of confirming them.

When conducting surveys, it is important to keep in mind their purpose, which is to check the opinion of users both in relation to the category as well as the entire content of the website. It is therefore a good practice leaving the user with a challenge and checking their reaction. Taking note of his remarks and attempting to understand the course of his reasoning can result in finding valuable thoughts.

In the case of categories imposed in advance, the user receives a hint that suggests a solution. He chooses her even at the moment when he disagrees 100% with the arguments. However, if the user does not suggest possible solutions, he can choose the best options according to him, which can surprise even specialists.


Research and testing is the best way to understand user behavior. It is also the first step in the process of creating a positive in the reception of a website. Of course, it happens that one test is not enough. So it is good to carry out the process of sorting the cards several times and use the information obtained earlier. This will facilitate the correct interpretation of the data. Knowing how users act will make it possible to create a product that they will be happy with.

Are you interested in User Experience? Do you want to know a little more about it? Take a look at our Other Entries, where you will find a lot of valuable information. If you are looking for help with website optimization, you need a usability audit or UX design — report to us. Together we will find the best solution for you.

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