UX Card Sorting: The Ultimate Guide

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Madison Zoey Vettorino
Madison Zoey Vettorino


If you’ve ever landed on a website that feels incredibly intuitive and easy to navigate, you’ve probably experienced the power of UX card sorting firsthand. Your site must present visitors with the information they’re looking for when they’re looking for it to reduce bounce rate and delight them.

People sitting around a table at work discussing UX card sorting session results

Download Our Free UX Research & Testing KitThe bad news? Sometimes, organizations don’t have the best understanding of what users are seeking. The good news? Website card sorting can help fill any gaps. In this post, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about UX card sorting, from what it is to how to conduct your first session.

Of course, you don’t have to use card sorting strictly for website hierarchy — you can also employ this tactic to comprehend better how people are digesting and categorizing information.

Why is website card sorting helpful?

Your organization will gain insights thanks to completing a UX card sorting study. For starters, you’ll robustly understand your audience’s domain knowledge. From there, you can create site navigation that feels right to your audience. (And, spoiler alert, that might not be what feels intuitive to you.)

For instance, say you own a milk company, and you’re building a site for it. You might initially think it makes sense to organize your pages based on the different types of milk (whole milk, 2%, half and half, oat, almond, soy).

However, with the help of a UX card sorting session, you may discover that visitors would better respond to navigation sorted in two pages: dairy and plant-based milk. Then, you can have subpages underneath explaining the different options (i.e. whole milk, 2%, half and half under the dairy page and oat, almond, and soy under the plant-based milk page).

Website card sorting helps guarantee your organization presents information to visitors logically.

Different Types of UX Card Sorting

We’ve walked you through one way to conduct a website card sorting session, but there are several variations you can make to ensure your experience best suits your needs. Let’s walk through these variations now.

Card Sorting Strategies

First, let’s walk through the different types of UX card sorting. There are three, each with a different best use.

Closed Card Sorting

ux card sorting: closed card sorting image shows index cards with different elements of music composition and instruments, and the papers adjacent to the cards reflect these groupings First up is closed card sorting. With this, you’ll create labels for the different categories and request session participants to organize the cards into those categories. While this won’t help you figure out how your users think of the connectedness of topics, you can better grasp a category’s structure.

Open Card Sorting

ux card sorting: image shows different cards with instrument names and elements of music composition and two sheets of paper that have question marks on them, where participants would create their own labels. Open card sorting is when study participants are provided cards already filled out with topics. Then, researchers ask participants to organize the cards as they feel right. Then, the study participant is asked to label the groups they made.

Open card sorting is particularly effective if you want to refresh your website or start from scratch. When you analyze the data you acquire from the session, you can determine how the website is best structured and if it matches up to what you plan on pre-study.

In this post, we’ll walk you through the process of putting together an open card sorting session.

Hybrid Card Sorting

ux card sorting: hybrid card sorting features index cards with elements of music composition and instruments. paper adjacent features one label to help participants group the cards but the other is open to them to write the label. Consider a hybrid card sorting session if you want the best of both worlds. If you opt for this type of card sorting session, participants can sort their cards into premade categories and add their own categories as they feel fit. This could be a great option if you know a few main categories but are missing some.

Digitized vs. Paper Website Card Sorting

You’ll have to decide whether you want to opt for digital or paper card sorting. If you opt for paper website card sorting, you will write your topics on paper — ideally index cards or sticky notes. This is an excellent option because it’s digestible for participants, and they won’t need to learn a new website software to complete the process.

Additionally, with paper card sorting, people can spread out their note cards and place them wherever they feel right. Of course, there’s more work for the researcher, as you’ll have to input the information digitally. However, this trade-off could be worth it.

On the contrary, with digital card sorting, you can use a website to create a digital representation of index cards. Then, participants in the session will drag and drop them into piles as they feel fit. The software may automatically analyze participant behavior, but it could be tricky for those in the study as there may be a learning curve for the software.

Moderated vs. Unmoderated UX Card Sorting

The process we will walk you through is an example of a moderated card sorting session. As you may have guessed, a moderated card sorting session required a moderator. One pro of implementing this method is the chance to ask participants to expand on why they made the groups they did. However, it’s more costly than unmoderated sessions.

With an unmoderated experience, you allow participants to walk through this process solo. You can conduct the session digitally, as there’s no facilitator. One reason why this is a popular option is that it’s cheaper. However, you won’t be able to ask participants why they organized their cards how they did. This means you lose valuable information that could help you make crucial decisions.

How to Conduct a Website Card Sorting Session

Ready to conduct your first website card sorting session? Once you’ve recruited participants in your target audience, here’s how to make your sorting session successful.

1. Pick your topics.

UX card sorting: image shows a person with a book and a person with a laptop. text reads: pick your topics. Tip: Be sure that when you write your topic cards, you don't use the same words repeatedly. This could lead users to group these topics together unintentionally.First, select your topics. Meet with your team and gather everyone’s thoughts regarding which topics should be included in the UX card sorting session. Collect as many ideas as possible — you’ll narrow things down. You may even consider a content audit to determine what content you have on your site.

Once you’ve collected everyone’s ideas, it’s time to pick which topics you would like to move forward with. Try to include only relevant topics. And to ensure participants don’t become overwhelmed, keep it between 30 and 60 topics. You’ll put each on a separate index card.

2. Ask study participants to group topic cards together.

ux card sorting: image shows a yellow light bulb. text read: ask study participants to group cards. Tip: Make sure participants know it's okay to have an 'unknown' pile.Next, you’ll ask your participants to organize the topic cards together in a manner that makes sense to them. Request that the participants look at each topic card and put the cards together that feel like they should be in the same group.

Be sure to remind participants that some card piles might be smaller (or larger) than others, and there is no right or wrong number of piles. Plus, be sure that participants know they can adjust as they go.

Your study participants should also know that having a pile of cards they’re unsure of is okay, and that accuracy is more important than placing all the cards. If a study participant is not confident about what a word means or unsure where it would fit best, that’s okay! Encourage them to put it to the side.

3. Ask the participant to give the piles a name.

ux card sorting: image shows index cards and text reads: "ask participants to name the piles. Tip: Don't ask participants to complete this step until they're entirely done sorting through the cards." Once the participants place the topic cards in separate groups, it’s time to put together the pieces. Provide the participant with blank index cards and request that they provide a name for each pile created.

4. Get the scoop.

ux card sorting: image shows two people with speech bubbles above their head. the heading reads: 'get the scoop: Ask participants  questions such as:  -Why did you group the cards as such?  -Were there any cards you felt could fit in multiple groups? -Why did you put these cards in the 'unknown' pile?"Last (but certainly not least), allow study participants to explain why they grouped the cards as so, why they selected those names for the groups, and if any items were tricky to place. You can also ask if they felt any cards could be in multiple groups, or why they placed certain index cards in the “unknown” group.

That's it! You've successfully completed your first UX card sorting session, so give yourself a pat on the back. Now, you're one step closer to ensuring your site's user experience is seamless.

Tips and Tricks for Effective UX Card Sorting

Now that you know how to run a website card sorting session, let’s run through some tips and tricks you’ll use to make the experience as seamless as possible.

Make sure participants are your target audience.

We know it sounds simple, but be sure the participants in your study are members of your target audience. Otherwise, the information you achieve won’t be as helpful as it can be.

Therefore, when recruiting people to participate in your study, set up specific parameters to guarantee your data’s effectiveness. Additionally, you shouldn’t only complete this process with one or two people — aim for 15 to 20 to boost the accuracy of your results.

Be mindful of what words you use.

Because participants in your study will likely group cards with the same words together, refrain from doing this. Instead, opt for a synonym. People may feel that index cards with overlapping terms should be in the same group even if they’re better suited elsewhere, so by sticking with synonyms, you’re eliminating that.

Be sure the cards are shuffled before you give them to your participants.

This tip might sound self-explanatory, but it’s an important call out. Before you give your participants the cards and ask them to sort through them, be sure they’re shuffled. This helps ensure you get as accurate of a card sorting session as possible.

Make your UX card sorting session a success.

Ready to complete your first UX card sorting session? You have all the resources you need, and we know it will go great.

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Topics: User Experience

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