Card sorting can give sense and meaning to your information architecture, here’s what it is and how to do it
Are you in the middle of a website redesign? Or maybe you’re deep into a content strategy and need to create meaningful navigation for your users. Wherever you are in the design process, you need to know about the magic that is card sorting.
It’s an excellent technique to unearth insights about how to organize your information architecture using users’ mental models.
What is card sorting?
Card sorting is a UX design research technique. It is what designers use to understand and evaluate the information architecture of a website or mobile application.
It’s a really easy technique: you write things on a series of cards then ask people to sort those cards into categories.
It’s a simple way to organize information, such as your website’s navigation, that other people (i.e your users) will use.
By getting your users to write and organize information into what is similar, you get an insight into the mental models of your users.
Why is this useful? A mental model is what the user believes about the system in front of them. It is based on belief and not fact. Users will trek through an interface based on a set of their own assumptions and predictions.
Designers who tap into the mental models of their users will have an easier time understanding them and—by extension—designing for them. Essentially, mental models bridge the chasm between designer and user.
Three types of card sorting
Even the most simple of techniques has room for variation. Card sorting has three varieties:
- Open card sort: people sort cards into categories that make sense to them and label those categories themselves.
- Closed card sort: people sort cards into categories that you have provided.
- Hybrid: people sort cards into categories that you give them as well as labelling them.
Useful tip: You could start with an open card sort and follow with a closed card sort to see whether the categories work.
What steps are involved to do a card sort?
In her book, Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories, Donna Spencer explains the steps in a card sort. They are as follows:
Decide what you want to learn
Whether it’s a new navigation or the organization of website content, you need to know what it is you want to learn from the card sorting session.
Card sorting is useful when it comes to:
- Redesigning an existing website or section of a website
- Designing a new website
- Changing navigation
- Creating content categories
Select your method
Choose one of the three types from above. Plus, there are other factors to consider: will you be doing it face-to-face? Remotely? Moderated? Will you use card sorting software or will it be manual?
An open card sort will generally help you when you want to generate rather than evaluate. That is to say, you’ll use it to understand how people conceptualize information, where they expect information to be and generate ideas on how you should structure your information architecture.
Closed card sorting will help you uncover whether users conform/agree to your information structure or if you need to understand unclear or ambiguous categorizations.
Hybrid card sorting will give you further clarity if your open card sorting session was too ambiguous or the categorizations weren’t aligned by all participants.
Choose the content
This one is self-explanatory but what content are you going to be sorting?
Generally, you want to aim for 30 to 60 cards for the session. With this number, you’ll get enough data that you can use for analysis.
To understand what content to sort, think about:
- Doing a content audit
- Looking at your sitemap / product inventory
- Carrying out a competitor analysis
- Ask your customers what they would find useful
Make sure when you write your cards that they’re clear. Ambiguity begets ambiguity. With clearly labelled and easily understood cards, your users will be less prone to confusion and creating mixed patterns.
Find users to test
Then you need to select people to carry out the card sorting. You can find people on websites like UserTesting who are willing to take part.
Then you can use software like Optimal Sort to run a session. Generally, 5-10 participants are enough to get the data you’re looking for
Run the card sort and record the data
Start your card sorting session. Make sure to take note and record all of the data so you can analyze it.
Analyze the outcomes
What did you glean from your session? Were there commonalities that stuck out? Any unexpected categorizations you didn’t think of?
As Donna writes,
“Remember that you are the one who is doing the thinking, not the technique… you are the one who puts it all together into a great solution. Follow your instincts, take some risks, and try new approaches.”
Now you’ve got your results and done your analysis, it’s time to implement your findings. It’s best to prototype multiple solutions and test them based on the assumptions and categories from the session.
What are the benefits of card sorting?
Card sorting has a few benefits that make it a good UX design technique.
If you’re strapped for cash or work in a hostile UX environment then you can gain some quick wins with card sorting because it is cheap. All you need is paper and a pencil to create your cards.
It’s fast and easy
It’s not rocket science to work out card sorting. Other more complex techniques take time to learn and apply, but not card sorting. You can do multiple sessions in one afternoon.
It’s human-centered design
What better way to understand and create a website or app than including the mental models of your users? It’s the users who will be interacting with your products so their input is invaluable.
Where card sorting fails
Yes, so far it seems card sorting is the cure to all your UX ills. However, there are a few drawbacks that are worth highlighting.
It’s surface level
You don’t get to deep dive with card sorting. There’s not a lot of context for the participants so you’ll get a surface level analysis. Still, it’s a great starting point.
It’s not 100% consistent
Humans are not consistent creatures. One card sorting sessions may provide you with the perfect navigation whereas another might give you several inconsistent patterns.
It takes time
I know, we just said it’s super quick. And it is. Carrying out a card sorting session doesn’t have to take forever. But it’s the post-session analysis that takes time. Cross-referencing other sorting sessions and reaching a conclusion takes time and effort. It’s won’t be an overnight success, let’s put it that way.
Card sorting: what is it and how do you do it? – the takeaway
As with any research technique, it isn’t as effective as it can be when done in isolation. Card sorting should be mixed with other UX research techniques like interviews and usability testing to be really powerful.
This post is a primer – it gives you the essential information you need to get started and see valuable results.
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