Card Sorting and a glimpse at experimental sorting session

Card Sorting and a Glimpse at experimental sorting session

As part of our team’s weekly activities is a knowledge sharing session. So, in this article I’d like to share a UX technique we practiced recently — Card Sorting.
And plus, a real lesson learned with our team’s workshop.

A brief intro into Card Sorting

What — Definition

Card sorting is a method used to help design or evaluate the information architecture of a site and broader a digital product (web-app and mobile app).

Information Architecture (IA)

As Nielsen Norman Group defines, IA is the skeleton of a digital product, including the labelling of content and how they are organized in order for the user to find the content as easy as possible. A good IA, mostly presented as navigation, needs to be clear and intuitive enough to guide the users to the right flow.


Curate more refined product for users by understanding more into their mental model by

  • Real feedback on how users understand the information we present
  • Find out the most likely right keywords when they search for something
  • Discover the shortest path to browse among the content, an essential part in crafting a frictionless user flow

Cheap and not time-consuming (simple tools: paper, boards and around one hour/session)


Running it

In a card sorting session, participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them and they may also help you label these groups.

Based on the phase and project, you might need to choose between two types of card sorting methods: Open or Closed

Differentiate the two approaches

Open card sorting requires participants to write the tasks they want to perform with the product.

✔ Most suitable when establishing IA for a new website or digital product, where it’s more important that we get insights into users’ mental model and understand how they expect to interact with the product.

On the other hand, Closed Card Sorting provides them with categories decided in advance and they just need to put them in the order that is meaningful to them.

✔ For already in-used sites or if we have a redefined set of categories and want to put it to test.

Sometimes, these two approaches can be merged and become a hybrid or semi-closed for more flexibility.

Here’s a summary of the three approaches.

Card Sorting techniques overview


Based on the requirements and available resources, card sorting can be conducted in two ways:


Actual cards (post-its, sticky notes, pens and boards)

Online (for remote teams or travel inconvenience):

Using one of the online card-sorting software tools.

  1. Optimal Workshop: a UX research platform, providing a full-range features for card sorting technique, from recruiting right users, sorting to generating reports.
  2. Milanote: the famous app for UX research and remote collaboration, also supporting card sorting with multiple users in real-time platform.

Our experience with card sorting

One of our ongoing projects involving with a large scale of information and categories due to its multiple user roles. So, the navigation is an extremely important part to establish an easy guiding for them to use the platform.


1️⃣ Pilot test our initial hypotheses we created for the incoming workshop with our real users

2️⃣ Get our team member familiar to a card sorting process with a real exercise

3️⃣ Help the moderator to practice her skills as a workshop facilitator and better prepare for issues that may emerge in real workshop

About the project

The necessary information hotel employees needs for their everyday work.

Who’s involved in this workshop?

  • 6 designers of our team in three groups
  • 1 moderator to clarify the goal and help keeping the workshop on track

Types and platform used

For the purpose of practicing and promote domain knowledge in hospitality, we chose Open method and use Post-it notes as our cards.

Action time

Our facilitator shared some brief description about the project (which role the user in the platform are working at and we should write all the information we think the users should be able to find in the app.

  1. Instructing guidelines

🗒️ Lessons #1

  • Each idea is on one card (we missed that requirement and ended up with varied format of content on each card)
  • Consider explaining the whole process of card sorting to participants to help them keep track with the workshop easier
  • Make sure the user know
  • What role they are playing
  • The tasks they could perform on the platform
  • Start by explaining, remind constantly while the workshop is running

2. Generating ideas
Each group had 15 minutes to brainstorm and write down all the info based on the topic suggested.

🗒️ Lessons #2

  • Each idea is on one card
  • Take notice of the time, since people usually are concentrate for around 15 minutes at most (set the time-out based on this or a break is preferred if the content is too large / there are too many categories)

3. Grouping
After the brainstorming section, we took several minutes (approximately more than 15 minutes) to categorize roughly 18 cards/each group into two variants of taxonomy. (phew!).
When the groups finished the grouping, all of us were asked to participate in reviewing and raising questions.

Is there any card similar to the other? Mark them, and bring them together for later counting.
The wording of the card seemed unclear, the owner would be requested clarified it to others to make sure there were no patterns missed out.

For instance, a card with the wording “status” led to a discussion.

Should it be the “room status” or the “booking status”?

In this case, recalling our users were the hotel’s staff, the room status was the more suitable choice to choose.

🗒️ Lessons #3

  • No idea is wrong. Propose first, verify later.
  • Give more details to the cards: stay away from confusing wording, make short explanation to the labels. This would help shorten the time for the explanation.
  • Learned how a card sorting is operated
  • Discovered some new wordings for categories
  • Made a better preparation for the real workshop

Beyond this session

  1. Document the findings into digital version for optimal results overview (diagrams for more holistic view)
  2. Test the result with simple interactive prototype

If you’d like to get deeper into this method, here are some sources that may help

🗞️ Articles

Sam Yuan (2019) 8 things I wish I’d known about open card sorting — Shopify UX Card Sorting

Donna Spencer (2007) Eurostar Card Sorting Case Study — Rosenfeld Media

Pierre Croft (2014)

Advices to running Card Sorting from Optimal workshop

📚 Book

Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories by Donna Spencer — published by Rosenfeld

Hope you get something useful with this.
Till the next time, guys.

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