UX Best Practices: Using Card Sorting Exercises

Card sorting helps improve the information architecture

An effective information architecture, or how a digital product is organized and labeled, is built from a thorough understanding of users’ mental models. Card sorting is a low cost, effective user experience research method used to understand how users would group information on your website, app, or other digital product. You can provide pre-defined categories (closed card sort) or allow users to create their own categories (open card sort). Ask users to group digital or printed “cards” into categories that make the most sense to them. While these can be done remotely, adding a moderator can help you understand why participants grouped the cards the way they did.

Here is how to conduct a card sorting exercise:

Place website items or topics on cards. These can be digital or physical cards that the user can move around. Card sorting participants should be able to see all of the items at once.

Recruit 15-30 representative users to participate in the exercise.

  • Ask users to sort the items into categories. In an open card sorting exercise, users are asked to create their own category names. They can create as few or as many categories as they see fit with any number of items in each. In a closed card sorting exercise, the user must group the items into pre-defined categories. We recommend conducting open card sorting exercises to achieve a better understand users’ mental models.

  • In an open card sort, ask users to label each category. In contrast to a closed card sort, asking users to label the categories reveals how users’ internally structure and think about information.

  • Optionally, ask users to sort these categories in even broader categories. Just like the first round, the user would take their existing sorted categories, sort them into larger groups, and label those groups once all categories have been sorted. 

  • If a moderator is facilitating the exercise, ask follow-up questions to understand why participants grouped the items the way they did. Also ask what items were difficult to categorize and why?

When the card sorting exercise is complete, meet with your team to discuss the results. What patterns emerge? Did all participants group the items similarly? Did different groups of participants group items in different ways? How do these patterns differ from how the website is currently structured? What changes can you make to the information architecture to more closely match your users’ mental models?

We review card sorting and a variety of other UX research methods in our in-house UX ROI workshop. This hands-on, highly interactive workshop walks your team through methods for validating their assumptions and measuring and optimizing digital products to demonstrate a UX return on investment (ROI).