Mini guide to card sorting, one of the most fundamental building blocks of the ux researcher's workflow.

One of the most versatile techniques in the UX toolbox, the humble card sort routinely comes up in the  ux  design process. It can help you generate new content, validate ideas and even restructure existing flows. It is a good indicator of how your audience thinks, and the best part is that it costs next to nothing to conduct.

What is Card Sorting?

First let us get the definition out of the way. Card sorting is a simple but powerful type of research where the participants place information written on cards under different categories in a way that makes the most sense to them. The outcome of this exercise is often used to inform the Information Architecture of a particular system.

Context is Key

Card sort is not bound to a single point in the research phase and can be used in many different ways. 

Whether your goal is to..

  • Organize information for your digital product from scratch
  • Restructure the way the content in your product is presented to the user
  • Test if the labels you’ve used for your modules means what it’s intended to mean
  • Improve overall navigation in your platform 
  • Discover connections that you didn’t previously think about

..card sorting has something to offer to you.

Conducting a Card Sort

There are three broad types of card sorts that routinely come up in user research. They are Open, Closed and Hybrid Card Sorts. To learn about these further, let us take a look at two example exercises.

Supermarket Run

Recently at Aufait UX, we did an internal refresher on the use cases of card sorting with some games. Feel free to play along at home.

“You are setting up a new supermarket in your neighborhood. You have a rough idea of how a typical supermarket is supposed to work, but you still want to know how the locals navigate them. Conduct a card sort to determine what products should be placed in which aisle.”

HYBRID CARD SORT

The rules

  1. Place each item in the category that feels like the best fit.
  2. If a particular card doesn’t fit in with any of the categories, create a new category and label it appropriately.

Use-case

Hybrid card sort is useful when you have a rough idea of the different modules that are needed in a platform, but still need your users to help you fill in some gaps.

The setup

Fig. 1: Cards & Categories

How it went

Fig.  2: Aufait team hard at work

Despite its familiarity, a couple of doubts came up during the process.

  1. “I’m confused whether milk belongs in protein or dairy”

Answer: The beauty of card sort is such that it can accommodate ambiguity. First  - ask the sorters to consider if the card requires its own category. If the card can genuinely fit in two places, they can duplicate the card and place it in both.

  1. “I don’t fully know what the nature of chili is - is it a vegetable or is it a spice?”

Answer: Some items can be genuinely confusing, and this is not limited to the grocery store. When in card sort, your users might not fully understand a concept.

In a moderated card sort, the user can ask the researcher to clarify the meaning of particular cards. 

However if asking for clarity in real time is not possible, like in an unmoderated or remote card sort, the user can set aside the card for the researcher to later  reevaluate for its relevance. That in itself is an insight of its own.

Final Results

The most important thing to remember is that no two card sorts are the same. There are no right or wrong answers. The exercise is not to uncover the absolute truth of the world, it is here to uncover the mental models based on which your users function. 

Another type of card sort called Open Card sort can also be considered here.

OPEN CARD SORT

The rules

  1. Sort the cards into groups of your own making, depending on any logic that works for you.
  2. Label these groups.

Use-case

Open card sort is the most generative of the three types of card sorts and can help one understand user mental models in an unbiased manner.

If an open card sort had been considered for the above exercise, only the products would have been provided as cards, and the users would have had to come up with names for aisles on their own. There is also the possibility of them coming up with completely different categories, based on their own lived experiences.

Farmer’s Market

During a recent workshop at KTX Global Wave, we addressed a group of budding UX designers and enthusiasts on the importance of Card Sort  in creating the Information Architecture of systems. One of the segments included experiencing digital card sorting tools for faster analytics. 

Using a hypothetical case study called “Farmer’s market”, we asked them to do a card sort on various website features.

“You are re-designing a platform that helps people buy farm produce directly from the source. You want to preserve the existing pages, but you’re wondering if there may be a better way to organize the content within it. Conduct a card sort to help you redirect content to the place it belongs.”

CLOSED CARD SORT

The rule 

Place each of the cards presented to you into one of the predefined categories. 

Use-case

Closed card sort helps evaluate  if your way of organizing content makes enough sense to the target user.

The tool

Optimal Workshop

The setup
How it went
Final Results

The tools enabled us to get a very high level view of:

How the participants fared in general

And more importantly, their way of thinking

Follow our instagram page to keep up with future workshops and events. 

So, You’ve Done a Card Sort

Now what?

Card sort is best when it is performed on multiple participants to arrive at a reasonable mid-point that represents a large proportion of your target user. These findings can then be turned into information architecture for your platform with the content and features organized in a way that makes the most sense to the general population. 

And considering that information architecture is the backbone of all user experience, there is really no good reason to skip the card sort. So either pick up those cards and quickly test the structural integrity of your digital product, or reach out to us and we’ll do it for you!

Anjana

Anjana is a UX Designer who's dedicated to making designs that are both aesthetic and practical. As a post-graduate in psychology she weaves together her understanding of the human mind and keen critical thinking skills into every aspect of her work. Moreover, with a love for the written word and all things research, she strives to uncover every aspect of the UX industry and meet fellow design fanatics on her journey. Connect with Anjana via www.linkedin.com/in/anjana-e-138591160/

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