Card Sorting Basics: Efficient information architecture for beginners

by | Jun 23, 2024 | User Research, Editors choice, UX | 0 comments

Did you know that strawberries are not actually berries, but nuts? Or that tomatoes are botanically fruits, although we often treat them as vegetables? But would you categorise them as such? Or are strawberries just strawberries to you? And you don’t care what would be botanically correct? But how do the rest of your users see it? And this is where card sorting comes into play!

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at card sorting, explain the different types of this method and shed light on why it’s an indispensable tool in the UX design process. Whether you’re just starting out with UX design or want to deepen your existing knowledge, this guide will give you a comprehensive introduction to the world of card sorting.

What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a proven method in user experience (UX) design that is used to improve the structure and user-friendliness of websites and applications. Users categorise different terms or content (cards) into categories that are meaningful to them. This process helps designers to gain a deeper understanding of how users group and structure information.

 

Basic concept

In card sorting, participants are given a series of cards with terms or content on them, which they are asked to categorise into logical groups. There are two main approaches:

  • Physical Card Sorting: Participants are given physical cards which they arrange on a table or other surface.
  • Digital card sorting: Participants use special online tools to sort the cards.

 

Purpose and benefits

The main purpose of card sorting is to design or improve the information architecture of a website or application. Here are some specific benefits:

  • Improving usability: By understanding how users group information, you can design the navigation and structure of a website or application to make it more intuitive and user-friendly.
  • User-centred design: Card sorting brings the user’s perspective directly into the design process, resulting in a structure that matches their expectations and mental models.
  • Efficient problem detection: By involving users in the sorting process, potential problems in the information architecture can be recognised and resolved at an early stage.

Types of card sorting

Card sorting is a method by which users categorise terms or content. There are two main types, each offering different advantages: Open and closed card sorting.

In open card sorting, participants receive cards with different terms or content and are asked to sort them into groups that make sense to them. They create their own categories and name them. This method provides valuable insights into the mindset of users as it shows how people naturally structure information. It is particularly useful if you want to develop a completely new information architecture. As participants are not restricted by predetermined categories, they can form groups creatively and flexibly, resulting in a variety of different and sometimes surprising groupings.

In closed card sorting, on the other hand, participants are presented with the cards together with predefined categories. Their task is to categorise the cards into these predefined categories. This method provides more structured and consistent results that are easier to analyse. Closed card sorting is particularly suitable for checking and fine-tuning an already developed structure. Designers can check whether the specified categories make sense for users and make adjustments if necessary.

In addition to these two main methods, there is also reverse card sorting or tree testing, in which users navigate through an existing structure to test its effectiveness. We will look at this in more detail in another article.

By using these methods, UX designers can ensure that the structure of their websites and applications meets the expectations and needs of users. This improves usability and makes the user experience more intuitive.

Why is card sorting important?

Card sorting plays a crucial role in the UX design process as it helps to optimise the structure and usability of websites and applications. But why exactly is this method so important?

Firstly, card sorting significantly improves the user experience. By understanding how users group and structure information, you can develop a navigation structure that is intuitive and easy to understand. This leads to users finding what they are looking for more quickly and therefore having a more pleasant user experience. A well-structured website or application reduces frustration and increases user satisfaction, which ultimately leads to increased dwell time and user retention.

Secondly, card sorting promotes a user-centred design. This method brings the user’s perspective directly into the design process. Instead of basing how the information architecture should be designed on assumptions, card sorting provides concrete data and insights from the perspective of actual users. This ensures that the structure of the website or application matches the expectations and mental models of the users, which increases the effectiveness and efficiency of use.

Thirdly, card sorting enables the early identification of problems in the information architecture. By involving users in the sorting process, potential difficulties and misunderstandings in the categorisation can be identified and resolved at an early stage. This saves time and resources, as problems do not have to be resolved after the website or application has been launched.

The use of card sorting makes the structure of digital products clearer and more user-friendly. UX designers benefit from deep insights into the way users think, which enables them to develop products that are intuitive to use and offer a positive user experience.

How does card sorting work?

Card sorting is a practical method that can be carried out in just a few steps. Here you can find out how to successfully plan and implement a card sorting project from start to finish.

 

Preparation

The first step in carrying out card sorting is preparation. Firstly, you should clearly define the goals of your project. Do you want to develop a new information architecture or review an existing one?

Then decide whether you want to use open or closed card sorting. If you have defined a hierarchy and the aim is to sort the terms into this structure, closed card sorting is suitable. If, on the other hand, you want to develop a completely new structure, open card sorting is more informative as it reveals the user’s way of thinking.

Create a list of terms or content to be sorted. These terms should be representative of the content of your website or application.

 

Participant selection

Selecting the right participants is crucial to the success of your card sorting. Choose a representative group from your target group to ensure that the results are relevant and meaningful. You should plan for at least five participants, but ideally between 10 and 15. If your budget and resources allow, more participants are of course better, as this increases the significance of the results.

 

Implementation

There are two main methods for conducting card sorting: physical and digital.

  • Physical Card Sorting: Participants are given physical cards which they arrange on a table or other surface. This method is particularly useful if you have direct contact with the participants and want to observe their reactions and thought processes. It is helpful if the participants use the “thinking aloud” method to verbally express their thoughts during the sorting process.
  • Digital Card Sorting: Participants use online tools to sort the cards. This makes it easy to carry out even with participants who are in different locations. Popular tools for digital card sorting include OptimalSort, xSort and UserZoom. Alternatively, cheaper tools such as Miro or FigJam can be used, but these do not offer integrated analysis options. Here too, the “thinking aloud” method should be used to gain deeper insights into the way users think.

 

Analysis

Once the card sorting has been carried out, analyse the results. Collect the data and look for patterns and similarities in the groupings. These patterns provide insight into how users structure information and which categories make sense to them. You can use analysis tools and software to visualise and interpret the data.

Finally, you should derive specific recommendations for action from the results. These recommendations will help you make informed decisions about the design of the information architecture and optimise the structure of your website or application to meet the needs of users.

Conclusion

Card sorting is a valuable method in UX design that helps to optimise the structure and user-friendliness of websites and applications. By involving users in the process of categorising content, you gain deeper insights into their way of thinking and can design the information architecture accordingly.

By deciding whether to use open or closed card sorting and carefully selecting participants, you can ensure that the results are representative and meaningful. It can be carried out both physically and digitally, using digital tools such as OptimalSort, xSort, UserZoom as well as cheaper alternatives such as Miro or FigJam.

A thorough analysis of the sorted maps provides valuable insights that should lead to concrete recommendations for action. These recommendations help to adapt the structure so that it meets the expectations and needs of the users.

The use of card sorting makes the structure of digital products clearer and more user-friendly. UX designers benefit from the deep insights into the way users think, which enables them to develop products that are intuitive to use and offer a positive user experience.

This content was created with the support of OpenAI’s ChatGPT-4 and DALL-E technologies as well as Midjourney and DeepL. However, the majority of the editorial work was done by our team to ensure authenticity and expertise.