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Card Sorting Guide: The User-Centered Web Design Technique

Card sorting is a user-centered design (UCD) technique that helps web designers and information architects understand how users perceive and categorize information on a website. As a result, designers can create more intuitive and user-friendly navigation and information architecture by involving users in organizing and structuring content.

The importance of card sorting in web design cannot be overstated. An effective website should allow users to find the information they are looking for without frustration easily. Poorly organized websites can lead to user dissatisfaction and increased bounce rates, negatively impacting the site’s overall success. Card sorting provides valuable insights into user expectations and mental models, enabling designers to create a site structure that aligns with users’ needs.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide to website card sorting, covering different types of card sorting, the steps to conduct a card sorting exercise, valuable tools, tips for effective card sorting, and analysis of card sorting results. By following this guide, you will be better equipped to create a user-friendly and successful website.

Types of Card Sorting

There are three main types of card sorting: open, closed, and hybrid. Each type has unique advantages and disadvantages, which will be discussed below.

Open card sorting

In open card sorting, participants are provided with cards containing content items, topics, or features found on a website. They are asked to group these cards into categories that make sense to them and then label each category. This approach allows participants to create categories without preconceived structure or guidance.

Pros and cons: Open card sorting helps identify natural content groupings and understand users’ thought processes and terminology. However, the lack of predefined categories can lead to inconsistent results, making analyzing and interpreting the data more challenging.

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Closed card sorting

In closed card sorting, participants are given the same set of cards as in open card sorting but are also provided with predefined categories. Their task is to sort the cards into the given categories. This approach is beneficial when the main categories have already been established, and the goal is to fine-tune the organization of the content within those categories.

Pros and cons: Closed card sorting is more structured than open card sorting, making it easier to analyze results and compare participant responses. However, it does not provide the same insight into user-generated categories or terms, which may limit its usefulness in understanding users’ mental models.

Hybrid card sorting

Hybrid card sorting is a combination of open and closed card sorting. Participants are given a set of cards and some predefined categories, but they also have the option to create their categories. This approach balances structure and flexibility, enabling participants to work within an existing framework while still providing insights into their thought processes.

Pros and cons: Hybrid card sorting offers the benefits of both open and closed card sorting, as it can help identify user-generated categories and terms while providing a structured framework for analysis. However, the added complexity of the hybrid method may make it more time-consuming for participants and slightly more challenging to analyze the results.

Steps to Conduct Card Sorting

Conducting a card sorting exercise involves several vital steps to ensure meaningful results that can inform your website design decisions. Here’s a breakdown of the process:

  1. Define objectives and scope: Before starting a card sorting exercise, determine your objectives and the scope of the study. Consider the specific aspects of your website’s information architecture you want to test and define clear goals for the exercise. This will help you stay focused and better analyze the results.
  2. Select a diverse group of participants who represent your target audience: Aim for at least 15-30 participants, as this will help you capture a range of perspectives and account for variations in user behavior. Be sure to include users with different experience levels and familiarity with your website’s content.
  3. Create cards: Prepare cards representing your website’s content, features, or topics. Use simple, concise language to describe each item, and avoid using jargon or technical terms that may confuse participants. Aim for 30-60 cards, as larger sets can become overwhelming and lead to participant fatigue.
  4. Set up the card sorting session: Choose a suitable environment for the card sorting exercise. Ensure ample space and a quiet, comfortable setting for an in-person session. Select a reliable online card sorting tool for remote sessions that allows for real-time collaboration and data collection.
  5. Facilitate the card sorting exercise: Begin the session by providing clear instructions to participants. Explain the purpose of the exercise and their role in it. Encourage them to think aloud as they sort the cards, as this can provide valuable insights into their thought processes. Be available to answer questions and clarify confusion, but avoid influencing participants’ decisions.
  6. Analyze and interpret results: After completing the card sorting exercise, analyze the data to identify patterns, trends, and areas of consensus or disagreement among participants. Look for commonalities in how users have grouped and categorized the cards and any surprising findings or outliers. Use these insights to inform decisions about your website’s information architecture, navigation, and content organization.

Tools for Card Sorting

Various tools are available for card sorting exercises, from traditional physical tools to modern digital solutions. Here’s an overview of the options:

Physical tools

  • Index cards and markers: The most basic and traditional method for card sorting involves using index cards with content, features, or topics written on them, along with markers for labeling categories. Participants physically sort the cards into piles and then label each group. This method can be effective for in-person sessions but may be time-consuming to set up and requires manual data collection and analysis.
  • Sticky notes and pens: Like index cards, sticky notes can be used for card sorting exercises. Write the content items on individual sticky notes, and provide pens for participants to label categories. In addition, sticky notes can be easily rearranged on a table or wall, making them a versatile option for in-person sessions.

Digital tools

  • Online card sorting software: Several online tools and platforms have been developed for card sorting exercises. These tools offer a digital alternative to traditional physical methods and can be used for in-person and remote sessions. Some popular options include OptimalSort, UXtweak, and UsabilityTools.
  • Comparison of popular tools: When choosing an online card sorting tool, consider factors such as ease of use, customization options, collaboration features, and data analysis capabilities. Some tools may offer additional functionality, such as conducting tree testing or integrating with other user experience testing methods. Take advantage of free trials or demo versions to test different platforms and find the best fit for your needs.

Tips for Effective Card Sorting

To get the most out of your card sorting exercise and ensure actionable insights, follow these best practices:

  1. Define clear goals: Establish specific objectives for your card sorting exercise, such as identifying user-generated categories or evaluating the effectiveness of an existing website structure. Clear goals will help you stay focused throughout the process and guide your analysis of the results.
  2. Ensure diverse participant profiles: Select a diverse group representing your target audience. Include users with experience, expertise, and familiarity with your website’s content. This will help you capture a range of perspectives and account for variations in user behavior.
  3. Please keep it simple and focused: Limit the number of cards to 30-60 items, as larger sets can overwhelm participants and lead to fatigue. Use simple, concise language to describe each item on the cards, and avoid using jargon or technical terms that may confuse participants.
  4. Consider iterative testing: Card sorting exercises can be conducted in multiple rounds, allowing you to refine your website’s structure based on user feedback. Iterative testing can help you identify potential issues and optimize your information architecture before implementing changes on your website.
  5. Combine card sorting with other UX methods: Card sorting is just one method for understanding user behavior and improving your website’s user experience. Combine card sorting with other UX research methods like user interviews, usability testing, and analytics data to understand better how users interact with your site and inform your design decisions.

Analyzing and Interpreting Card Sorting Results

After completing the card sorting exercise, it’s crucial to analyze and interpret the results to inform your website design decisions. Here’s a guide to help you make sense of the data:

  1. Identifying patterns and trends: Analyze the data to identify common patterns and trends in how participants grouped and categorized the cards. For example, look for areas of consensus where most participants agreed on content organization and areas of disagreement or variation. These insights can help you understand users’ mental models and inform decisions about your website’s information architecture and navigation.
  2. Analyzing participant feedback: If participants were encouraged to think aloud during the exercise or provide feedback at the end, carefully review their comments and observations. This qualitative data can provide valuable insights into users’ thought processes, expectations, and preferences, which can further inform your website design.
  3. Translating insights into actionable improvements: Use the findings from your card sorting exercise to make data-driven decisions about your website’s structure and organization. For example, consider the following when implementing changes:
    1. Category names and labels: Use user-generated labels and terminology when creating or refining categories on your website. This will help ensure the navigation is intuitive and meets users’ expectations.
    2. Content organization: Reorganize your website’s content based on the common groupings identified in the card sorting exercise. This may involve rearranging pages, creating new sections or categories, or consolidating similar content.
    3. Addressing areas of disagreement: If participants disagreed on the organization of certain content, consider conducting further research or testing to understand user preferences and expectations better. This may involve additional card-sorting exercises, user interviews, or usability testing.
    4. Iterative improvements: Continuously refine and optimize your website’s information architecture based on user feedback and testing. This will help ensure your site remains user-friendly and accessible as it evolves.

By carefully analyzing and interpreting the results of your card sorting exercise, you can make informed decisions about your website’s structure and organization, ultimately improving the user experience and increasing the chances of success for your site.


Card sorting is a powerful and valuable technique for understanding how users perceive and organize information on a website. Designers can create more intuitive and user-friendly navigation and information architecture by engaging users in structuring content.

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In this comprehensive guide, we have covered the different types of card sorting, the steps to conduct a card sorting exercise, the tools available, tips for effective card sorting, and how to analyze and interpret the results. Following these guidelines and implementing the insights gained from card sorting exercises, you will be better equipped to create a user-friendly and successful website.

In conclusion, card sorting is an essential part of user-centered design and plays a crucial role in developing an effective website that meets users’ needs and expectations. Furthermore, regularly conducting card sorting exercises and combining them with other UX research methods can improve your site’s information architecture, ensuring a positive and engaging user experience.

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