September 5, 2016


Card Sorting strenthening information architecture

Card sorting is a UX design technique in which a group of SMEs or users provide inputs, based on which, the information architecture is defined. It is also used to evaluate the information architecture. Typically, the participants are asked to organize a set of cards into categories that seem logical to them. Participants can also be asked to name these groups to create a Folksonomy (User defined Taxonomy).

Card sorting helps us understand users’ perception of the information space. It is a useful approach for designing Information Architecture, Workflows, and Menu structures. The objective is to identify and adopt a standardized taxonomy that can be applied to organize information and create a navigation structure that is obvious and natural to users. Card Sorting is usually performed while designing the navigation structure of a website or mobile app offering a variety of content and functions.

Knowing how users group the information can help in:

  • Building the structure of the website or application
  • Deciding what to put on the homepage
  • Labelling categories and defining a syntax or taxonomy to maintain consistency

How is Card Sorting conducted?

Card Sorting can be conducted in a variety of circumstances – physical workshops, by e-mail, or using software.

The following is the basic process:

  • Items to be categorized are printed on cards which are large enough, so that item names can be easily read when spread out on a desk or table.
  • Participants are asked to group items in a way that makes sense to them. They may also be asked to label these groups.
  • Once all the participants have completed the exercise, their data is collated for analysis.
  • A general agreement about some items and their groupings will be fairly apparent.
  • A dendogram (Category tree) / pictorial representation of the results can be generated through Cluster Analysis.

Benefits of Card Sorting

Card sorting is useful when:

  • There is a huge variety of items that need to be organized
  • There is no existing taxonomy for organizing items
  • Items become difficult to group into categories due to their similarities

Types of Card Sorting

Open Card Sort

Participants are asked to organize items within a website or mobile app into categories as they see fit. Participants are then requested to label each category, with the label providing an idea of the content. An open card sort is useful when one wants to learn how the users group content and the terminology used.

Closed Card Sort

Participants are asked to organize items within a website or mobile app into pre-defined categories. A closed card sort, also called Reverse Card Sort, works best when we have a set of pre-defined categories. It is useful when one wants to learn how users group content.

At times, it may be useful to try combining both the techniques. For example, one can conduct an open card sort and identify categories, and then conduct a closed card sort to validate the category labels and groupings.

Recently, we were working on a mobile app, where we followed a similar approach. We initially conducted an open card sort using Optimal Sort with a set of 30 items. We ended up having too many categories, which resulted in a scattered structure, making it difficult for us to identify the information grouping patterns.

In order to refine results, we then performed a closed card sort using Microsoft Excel (and an in-house template) with a refined set of 44 items and 9 pre-defined categories. Participants were also given an option to enter a custom category name, if they couldn’t associate an item with any of the pre-defined categories. The closed card sort results helped us identify information grouping patterns, using which, we defined the Information Architecture.

Card Sorting Tools

  1. xSort: is a free card sorting application for Mac.
  2. Optimal Sort is an online card sorting application useful for remote card sorting.
  3. UX Sort is a free card sorting application for Windows.
  4. Microsoft Excel Microsoft Excel can be used as a simple tool for card sorting and PowerPivot for visual representation of results.

Card Sorting: Physical v/s Software

The key advantage of physical card sorting is the personal touch. A lot of insights into the participants’ mental model can be gathered by observing them during physical card sort sessions. However, one of the biggest challenges of physical card sorting is its analysis. Conducting a physical card sorting session is simple but its analysis can be cumbersome and time-consuming. It is useful when conducted with a small group of participants with an information space that is not too large (<40 items).

Using software is more efficient to analyse and generate results. Almost all card-sorting software use cluster analysis and generate Dendograms. The software can be used for remote card sorting, which allows participants to take up the session as per their convenience. However, the software provides only statistical data without any insights into the users’ mental models. The software can be used when participants are spread across geographies or when the number of participants is large.


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