The Ultimate Guide to Card Sorting

Ultimate Guide to Card Sorting

Published on 11 Jan 2024 | Author - Daria Krasovskaya

Have you ever wondered how you can ensure that the way you organize content is meaningful for your intended users? If the answer is yes, then card sorting is the approach you might be after. In this article, we’ll explain what card sorting is but also provide a handy step-by-step guide on how to conduct one.

If you are looking to unleash the full potential of your digital product, conducting card sorting should be at the top of your list. Card sorting can revolutionise your design approach as it can lead to meaningful information architecture and hence to the creation of more intuitive products.

What is Information Architecture?

Information architecture, also known as IA is the way we organize and structure information to ensure intuitive navigation within an interface. It revolves around organizing information in a way that is meaningful to the intended users of a product, ensuring a more intuitive navigation. Effective Information architecture is a crucial aspect of the user experience as it ensures smoother interaction and minimizes the risk of user frustration.

To achieve a more structured and meaningful information architecture, UX professionals can deploy various types of UX testing like card sorting. With card sorting, UX designers and researchers alike can gain invaluable insights into how users naturally perceive information and how this information would be structured based on existing mental models. Hence, conducting card sorting is an unmissable opportunity to create an information architecture that aligns with the needs and expectations of its users.

What is Card Sorting?

What is Card Sorting?

According to NN Group, card sorting is ‘’a UX research technique in which users organize topics into groups’’. To add to this definition card sorting is a usability testing method to assess the way that information and content are organized within a system. During a card sorting test, the participants are asked to organize content into categories in a way that makes sense to them. Card sorting can be conducted both in person and in a remote setting and participants might be asked to organize topics completely openly or to pre-defined categories.

During the card sorting test, UX professionals have the chance to observe how users would naturally organize content offering invaluable insights into their mental models and allowing them to deep dive into how users perceive information. Based on those insights, designers can re-organize or refine the information architecture of the interface and boost the overall user experience.

Why Should You Run Card Sort Tests?

Running card sorting tests can have a host of advantages for your products. Here is our top 3:

Benefit 1: Intuitive  Information Architecture

One of the greatest benefits of conducting card sorting tests is crafting a more user-centric and intuitive information architecture for your interface. Card sorting studies are an excellent way to dive into the preferences and expectations of your audience and create an information architecture that aligns with their thinking. This is a user-centric approach that ensures a more intuitive organization and structure of the content enhancing the overall user experience.

Benefit 2: Navigation and Findability

Another invaluable advantage of the card sorting method is that it can help designers improve the navigation within an interface but also boost the findability of content. By understanding how users naturally organize and consume content, UX professionals can create seamless navigation and ensure that users will be able to locate the content they are looking for with ease.

Benefit 3: Enhanced Labeling and use of Terminology

Card sorting studies can provide great insights into the kind of language and terminology that users take a preference for and adapt their labeling and terminology accordingly. In turn, this ensures that users can easily understand the content presented, reducing significantly their cognitive load and frustration.

When Should You Do Card Sorting?

When Should You Do Card Sorting?

Card sorting can prove to be an invaluable tool in many different scenarios:

  • Development of new AI

A card sort test is a great first step to developing new information architecture at the very early stages of product development. It can massively help designers understand how users naturally perceive information and hence design more intuitive and meaningful information flows for their audience.

  • Redesigning Interfaces

When redesigning interfaces, card sorting is a great method to assess how effective the current information architecture is. This methodology can offer insights into the areas of the IA that are working well as well as areas for improvement. Finally, it can actionable insights into how those can be redesigned to better meet the needs of the users.

  • Evaluating Nomenclature

Card sorting is a great tool when it comes to the evaluation of labeling and overall nomenclature. Using insights gained from the card sorting studies, designers can further refine the language and terminology used within the information architecture to better align with the expectations of the intended users.

Types of Card Sorting Studies

Types of Card Sorting

As briefly mentioned earlier there are a host of different ways to conduct a card sort test. Depending on the unique demands of your product and the phase of the product lifecycle that you are in, you can pick and choose the type of card sorting study that best fits your needs.

1) Open vs. Closed Card Sorting

Open card sorting is a type of card sort test where participants are called to organize topics or information openly without pre-defined categories being presented to them. During this test, participants are asked to create the categories that make the most sense to them and then organize the content under those categories. Ideally, open card sorting should be conducted during the early stages of new information architecture development as part of the exploratory research and when exploring new content or concepts that need to be organised organically.

On the other hand, closed card sorting is a test where participants are asked to organize content under pre-set categories that are given by the user researchers. This type of card sorting is ideal for the refinement of existing information structures as it is an excellent way to examine how well the current structure meets the expectations of the users.

Tip: If you are looking to combine both approaches, then hybrid card sorting is what you are after. During the hybrid card sorting, participants are called to both organize content after some predefined categories but also create their own. Presenting some of the categories can be a great source of inspiration for your participants!

2) Moderated vs. Unmoderated Card Sorting

Moderated card sorting tests are studies that are conducted with the guidance of a moderator. During the moderated card sorting sessions, participants are guided through the sorting process by a facilitator. This type of card-sorting test allows researchers to deep dive into the thoughts of the users by observing them in real time and asking for clarification if needed.

On the other side, during unmoderated card sorting sessions, participants are called to complete their tasks on their own without someone to guide them. This type of card-sorting test can be ideal for large-scale studies or when the resources and budget are limited.

3) Online vs. Offline Card Sorting

Card sorting studies can be conducted both online and offline. During an online card sorting test participants are asked to complete their tasks in a remote setting using online tools. Like with every other online research session, this type of card sorting is ideal if you want to get geographically diverse participants. Bonus tip, online tools can often offer automated data collection and analysis tools making the research process more streamlined, especially in large-scale studies.

On the contrary, offline card sorting sessions are conducted in person and participants are asked to interact with tangible materials like sticky notes or cards. This type of card-sorting test allows for a more immersive experience.

How to Conduct Card Sorting?

If you are looking to kickstart your card-sorting journey, here is a handy step-by-step guide on how to launch your first study:

1) Define Objectives

Step one is to define the objectives of your card sorting test. Clearly define the areas that you want to shed light on by identifying the items or concepts that you want the participants to sort.

2) Choose Your Sorting Method

Next up is deciding on your sorting method! Select the type of card sorting test that best fits the needs of your project and do not forget that there are hybrid options you can tap into!

3) Choose a Card Sorting Tool

Once you have decided on your methodology, it is time to choose your card-sorting tool. A great tip is to ensure that the tool offers data collection and analysis capabilities as this will save you a lot of time and effort further down the line. Finally, do not forget to check that the tool fully integrates with your prototyping software.

4) Recruit Participants

The next step is to recruit the participants for the study! To ensure a successful test with meaningful results and actionable insights consider the demographics of your intended audience as well as the participants’ familiarity with the concepts that you will examine.

5) Prepare your sessions

Proactively prepare your sessions by creating your cards as well as the instructions around the tasks that you will give to the participants. Ensure that the number of cards is not overwhelming for the participants and that the instructions are clear and concise.

6) Analyze & Iterate

Once the card-sorting sessions have resumed, analyze the results by identifying themes and patterns to get actionable insights on the information architecture of your interface and iterate where possible.

How to carry out online card sorting?

You can easily conduct card sorting exercises online using card sorting tools. Here are our top picks that are available in the market at the moment:

1) UXtweak

UXtweak is a robust online platform, that is designed to help you test digital products using various UX research techniques, including card sorting. With their Card Sorting Tool you can conduct open, closed, and hybrid card sorts and leverage advanced analytics for extracting quantitative insights!

Additionally, UXtweak offers help with participant recruiting, giving you access to a 155M+ pool of participants for your studies and boasts great customer reviews scoring 4.8 out of 5 on Capterra, 4.7 on G2 and 5 out of 5 on Crozdesk.

2) UXmetrics

UXmetrics is another comprehensive tool featuring advanced qualitative analysis for your card sorting studies as well as a top-notch collaboration tool to boost teamwork when it comes to the interpretation of the card sorting results!

3) kardSort

Kardsort is a tool dedicated to card sorting supporting both open and closed card sorting methods. This is a flexible tool that offers real-time collaboration tools as well as seamless integration with the major prototype software.

If you are looking for more options, here is a collection of the best card sorting tools.

How to Analyze Card Sorting Results?

Analyzing card sorting results is a quintessential step in getting meaningful data and actionable insights from your test. Here is a general how-to guide to get you started:

  1. Manual Analysis

The results of the card sorting studies can be analyzed manually. To do so you can use different qualitative or quantitative methods:

  • Affinity diagram: You can use affinity diagramming to organize findings and identify commonalities among the choices of the participants. This is a manual qualitative analysis that can give you a deep understanding of how users organize information organically.

  • Thematic Analysis: This is another great qualitative method to manually analyze the insights gained from the card sorting studies. Carefully examine the choices of the participants and identify recurring themes.

  • Quantitative Analysis: You could start analyzing qualitative data, like for instance the times that the same card grouping occurred, to complement the qualitative insights and make more informed design decisions.

2) Analysis Using Card Sorting Tools

Alternatively, you could leverage the card sorting tools features to analyze the findings. The automated synthesis and analysis tools can help you identify themes and patterns when it comes to the categorisation trends. On top of that, those tools can also provide comprehensive quantitative data which are generated automatically after each card sorting test!

Card Sorting Best Practices

Here are 3 golden rules to craft and execute card sorting tests without a hitch:

  • Provide clear instructions

Whether the test is unmoderated or moderated, do not forget to provide clear and concise instructions for your participants to ensure meaningful and actionable insights and a smoother test.

  • Randomize the order of the cards

Make sure to randomize as much as possible the order of the physical or digital cards. This is a great way to remove potential bias in the choices of the participants.

  • Set Realistic Expectations

Tempting as it might be to present the participants with a large number of cards, make sure to give your participants a manageable number of cards instead. In general, try to set realistic expectations and be aware of the limitations of card sorting.

Wrapping Up

It is no secret that effective information architecture can go a long way when it comes to crafting seamless user interactions within an interface. Card sorting is one of the best tools in every UX professional's arsenal that can be used to assess and refine AI, placing the users’ intuition at the core of the design decisions. If you are looking to conduct your first card-sorting study but you are unsure where to start, UXweak can help you hit the ground running!


What is Card Sorting?

Card sorting is a user research method used by UX professionals to gain invaluable insights into how users naturally organize and categorize information. It can be carried out using physical cards or online card sorting tools. 

When Should You Do Card Sorting?

Card sorting can be a valuable tool throughout the product lifecycle. It can be used as part of exploratory research at the early stages of development, as well as during major redesigns or reworks.


Daria Krasovskaya


Daria Krasovskaya is the Head of Content at UX research platform UXtweak. She works closely with our UX researchers, UX/UI designers and content writers to ensure to publish high-quality, informative, and engaging content on topics around user experience and research.


DISCLOSURE: This article is published as part of a paid partnership with the author/company. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author/company.


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