An Essential Guide to Card Sorting

As businesses scramble to shine online, user experience (UX) has never been more important. Creating a website that is engaging, functional and easy to navigate on any device has become a hallmark of quality web design.

Your site map is a crucial component when building this experience – but how do you determine the best site map for your business, and the audience you are targeting? Card sorting is a clever exercise that can help you do just that, by designing and evaluating the architecture of your website.

Let’s take a look at what card sorting is, and how to go about conducting a session:

What Is Card Sorting?

Card sorting is a UX design technique that involves bringing together a group of users to generate a site map, by organising topics or categories into an order that makes sense to the individual or group as a whole. This can be invaluable for complex website projects, such as large-scale e-commerce sites with a far-reaching product catalogue.

During a card sorting session, the focus group will typically be given a set of cards or post-it notes, and asked to label them and/or develop a logical order that reflects their perceptions of these topics. In the case of web design, this allows the development team to gain a picture of how the site map should flow, to optimise the user experience.

What is card sorting?

Why Choose This Technique?

It’s all too easy for web design agencies to stick with the status quo when developing the architecture of a website. However, to ensure they get the site map right first time, it’s a smart move to invite a focus group of target users to give their take on the best way to group and arrange the pages in question.

Card sorting sessions can be particularly helpful for complex websites where the site map is not immediately obvious. What main categories do users expect to find? Do they want subjects broken down into lots of sub-pages, or compiled onto one, easy to sort web page? What should these pages be labelled as?

By gaining your users’ perspective on how they believe a website should look, you can ensure that the site navigation is intuitive and user-centric from the get-off. It’s a relatively quick and cost-effective way to bring your architecture into focus, to give your online presence the edge.

These sessions are popular amongst both startups and established brands looking to separate themselves from the competition. Returning to the drawing board and challenging preconceptions can secure unique insights into user trends and expectations, as well as their frustrations when dealing with similar brands.

Things To Bear In Mind

Whilst card sorting can provide essential insights into the user experience, it shouldn’t be relied upon wholly to design the architecture of a site. Not all sessions will result in a consensus; different users have different needs and views, especially where areas of specialism are concerned.

Think of these insights as a solid foundation on which your site map can be built; this technique only offers a basic outline of a website, focusing solely on the theoretical content as opposed to other key features of a sophisticated web design.

When bringing together a focus group for your card sorting session, attempt to select a diverse cross-section of the target audience, to ensure your results are representative of the whole.

You should set aside enough time to formulate relevant, insightful questions to pose to the individuals or group, and leave enough time in your schedule for thorough analysis of the results once the session is complete. In doing so, you can secure the best possible chance of a successful card sort, to make sure your efforts pay dividends.

Card Sorting Methods

Cart sorting can have as much or as little input into the design process as you feel necessary. It can be conducted right at the start of the website development, or used to evaluate a proposed site map if this is already in place. In some instances, you may wish to conduct several card sorts at different stages of your build.

Card Sorting Methods

Depending on where you are in this process, card sorting can be broken down into three main techniques:

Open Card Sort

In an open card sort, participants are given free range over how best to label and organise the topics or concepts. This gives you the opportunity to see how users instinctively group and order subjects, without the influence of the client or designer. This can either determine the final site map, or feed into the design process, depending on the strength of the answers given.

Closed Card Sort

A closed card sort involves asking the participants to sort topics or content into an existing set of categories, to learn how users associate products, services or subjects with one another. This is a great way to pinpoint the finer details of your website architecture, for items that don’t fall into clear-cut categories.

Reverse Card Sort

When analysing the structure of your proposed site map, or an existing website, card sorting can provide essential feedback from users. Also known as tree testing, it offers a surface-level review of the site navigation. By giving users tasks to sort cards in the most relevant way, you can learn whether the existing site map delivers on their expectations, and how to improve it.

Organising A Card Sorting Session

Card sorting can be a collaborative session, where the participants work together as a group, or based on the individual preferences and choices of a user on a one-on-one basis. Users can be given a brief to work from to aid the process, or you can leave them to reach their own independent conclusions.

For individual card sorts, it’s possible to migrate the process to an online ‘survey’, where participants use card sorting software to save time and money on travel. However, bear in mind that it will be more difficult to troubleshoot why participants have given certain answers when working with users remotely.

Preparing Your Card Sort 

When preparing for a card sorting session, it’s important to spend time organising your content into a list of topics. To ensure your participants complete the task and don’t feel overloaded with information, you should limit the number of topics to between 30 and 60.

If you’re planning a physical session, make sure your topics are written in neat, legible writing, with numbers on the back to aid analysis. It’s a wise idea to set aside several blank cards – especially for an open sort where users will have more input into the design – along with several colours of pen or card to differentiate the groups.

For online sessions, make sure your cards are prepared in an easy-to-understand manner, with clear instructions where necessary. Most card sorting software will offer the option of a comment box, allowing your participants to give feedback and insights that explain their choices, or ask any questions during the session.

To ensure the session is as productive as possible, consider offering an incentive for your participants. This could be a monetary incentive, a raffle, prizes for the best contribution, or even snacks if you’re welcoming users to your office. By making your contributors feel valued, you can secure the best possible input.

Analyse The Results

Once your card sorting session is complete, thorough analysis is vital if you want to gain maximum benefit from the data collected. Online software will conduct much of this for you, by collating the data and displaying the results in visual graphs and charts. However, it can be just as helpful to manually analyse the data in many instances – just be sure to photograph the cards to save your results!

Analysing the data

When analysing the data, you should look to identify patterns in the comments or groupings given by the users. How often did users place particular items or topics into certain groups? Did they give any explanation as to why they made these associations or links? Where did the participants differ in their approach?

By drawing conclusions from your results, you can ensure that the dendrograms and ultimately the final site map are reflective of the users’ feedback and behaviour, without allowing the views of one or two of the most vocal participants to sway the direction of your website architecture.

Summing Up

In the ever-changing world of web design, it’s crucial not to rest on your laurels when designing and building websites. Reputable web design agencies should look for new and innovative ways to improve the online presence and usability of their clients’ websites, ensuring they are user-centric and relevant to their target audience.

Over the past decade, card sorting has become a trusted way to enhance the UX of new and existing websites, by gaining valuable insights into the growing expectations and behaviour of users. By setting aside time to gather feedback in these fledgling stages of the build, you can ensure that the final results have the desired impact with your audience.