Card Sorting The Fast Way

How to uncover hidden insights and informational structures before lunch time

Too many teams spend too much time conducting, collecting, and sorting research without ever executing. Even more teams implement one bad idea after another without conducting any research at all. Card sorting is one of the most valuable design research methods for discovering how users structure information and use websites and apps. This article presents the most important parts of card sorting, so you can derive the greatest insight in the least amount of time.

Users are not good at defining what they want, let alone how they want it organized. Card sorting is used to help determine the information architecture of a digital experience. It exposes the informational structures users think within, which provides an understanding of their mental model.

Define the cards

Define the main tasks and content users will, or do encounter in the app or website. Aim for 25 to 60 cards. Handwrite the cards on scrap pieces of paper. Or create a two column layout in a document editor, print it, and cut out each card. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Resist your designer urge to make it aesthetically pleasing.

There are two types of card sorts: open and closed. An open card sort allows participants to write their own tasks and content. Open sorts are better when the app or website hasn’t been built. Closed sorts are better for rearranging existing structures. It is usually best to combine the two types by presenting the defined cards along with a few blank ones.

Find participants

Find similar users. Base them off of the primary persona your team created. If you don’t have a persona, pick participants that have similar goals when using your app or website.

Plan for 3 to 5 sessions. The more the better, but you will get diminishing returns after 10 (plus you need to finish this before lunch time). Schedule each session for 15 to 30 minute. Limit the majority of the sessions to 1 person. This will prevent a domineering participant from influencing another’s thinking. The exception to this rule is if the website or app requires a large degree of user collaboration. If this is the case, include multiple participants in each session.

Let the sorting begin

Begin the exercise with the cards randomly laid out on a table. Tell the participant to sort the cards into categories that make sense, and to think out loud as they do so. Really listen and take notes for analysis later. Do not interject or add your opinion. Only ask questions that help the participant further explain their thinking. Distinct patterns will emerge. Once the card sort has come to a conclusion, ask the participant to define each category.

Analyze

Analyze the card sort and distill the key insights from the exercise. Did people create similar groupings? What patterns emerged? Were people confused about terminology? Don’t waste time compiling data from the card sort into a spreadsheet. A level of free-association occurs during the exercise that exposes the real insights. Your interpretation of the exercise is key.

The insights you derive will give you a better picture of how the user thinks and organizes information structures. It will inform your design decisions, and if nothing else, it will open up further questions you can ask in user interviews. And make sure not to waste much time. There are plenty of other design research methods you can employ to further understand your user.

For more information on card sorting check out Boxes and Arrows and Usability.gov.

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