What is Card Sorting? – Updated 13th January 2017
Online card sorting is a usability tool that helps categorise your webpages by identifying how visitors would expect to find content or functionality. Online card sorting is a quick and simple way of evaluating your information architecture, workflow, menu structure or user navigation journeys. Card sorting tools ask users to organise topics into categories and may involve them naming these groups.
Card sorting is sometimes used after a tree testing (or reverse card-sorting) exercise identifies a findability problem with current navigation journeys. Tree testing evaluates how easy it is to find an item by getting participants to solely use the website’s navigation (i.e. without any use of internal search or other navigation aids) to complete a set task.
How Does Card Sorting Work?
The card sorting website will recruit a sample of people who are roughly representative of your target audience or customer base. Participants are then asked to organise topics into categories that they feel make sense. They may also be asked to label these groups to ensure the words you use are what users would expect.
Benefits of Card Sorting:
Card sorting is about understanding your user’s expectations and their comprehension of your topics. Further, when we discuss our websites internally we often unconsciously use jargon and words that are not generally used outside our organisations to describe aspects of our websites. Knowing how people groups and describe topics can help you:
- Organise the structure of your website
- Inform what content to put on your homepage
- Label categories and navigation
- Identify how different groups of users view and organise the same topics
Limitations of Card Sorting:
It does not make allowance for users’ tasks. Card sorting is a content-centric process and if used without considering users’ tasks it can lead to an information structure that is not usable when dealing with real tasks. Make sure you evaluate the output from a card sorting exercise by discussing the potential impact on key user tasks.
It can be superficial as participants may not fully consider what the content is about or how they would use it to complete a task. Card sorting results may also vary widely between participants or they may be fairly consistent. Ensure you don’t rely on too small a sample of users to reduce the risk of a few participants overly influencing your results.
Card sorting should be used to inform your decision making and be viewed alongside other research and usability testing to ensure it is used appropriately. For example you might consider tree testing or reverse card sorting to evaluate the findability of items in your navigation structure.
Like any research technique card sorting cannot tell you exactly how users will in reality respond on a live website . For this reason it is wise to consider A/B testing any major navigation changes first if they risk having an impact on key success metrics.
Open and Closed Card Sorting:
Open card sorting involves participants being asked to organise topics into groups that make sense to them and then give a name to each of these groups that best describes its content. This is great for understanding how users’ group content and the terms or labels they apply to each category.
Closed card sorting is where users are asked to sort topics using pre-defined categories. This is normally used once you have clearly defined your main navigation or content categories and need to understand how users organise content items into each category.
Often organisations use a combination of the two methods to firstly identify content categories and then to validate how well the category labels work in a closed card sort.
Below I have summarised 6 top online card sort tools you may wish to consider using.
1. Optimal Workshop: Discover how real people think your content should be organised and obtain user insights to make informed decisions about information architecture. Priced at start from $109 per month, $149 per survey or $990 for an annual subscription.
2. SimpleCardSort: Online card sorting with the ability to turn on subgroups to capture multiple levels of card placement. This PRO feature allows users to drag one grouping of cards into another grouping. An additional PRO feature offers participant replay which logs every decision made by users and logs each time they sort a card, create a new group or rename an existing group.
Free demo-account allows you to try out the service with a simple card sort. A Basic subscription starts at $49 for 30 days or $99 for the Pro 30 day plan.
3. usabilitiTEST: Online card sorting tool that supports closed, open and hybrid testing. Offers a no-obligation Free 3-day trial with all features available for your evaluation. Provides a Prioritization Matrix tool that helps rank tasks by a frequency and importance criteria. This can help identify which issues are of most importance and give priority to resolve first.
4. Usability Sciences: A full-service supplier of usability research, Usability Sciences has been established for over 25 years and will design, manage and analyse the result of your card sorting research for you. They offer both open and closed card-sorting solutions for you.
5. Usability Tools: Card sorting is just one of the tools in their impressive UX suite. Supports open and closed card-sorts, and randomisation of cards and categories. Offers a 14 day Free trial and you can obtain a price quote by submitting your details using a short form.
6. UserZoom: Offers clients a full usability suite, including web-based card sorting. Supports up to 100 items and 12 categories. Supports open and closed card-sorts, randomisation of questions to reduce participant bias, and follows a responsive design so participants can take studies on either their desktop or iPad. Using an iPad makes the process more of an intuitive experience by harnessing the power of touch-screen technology.
UserZoom is Ideal if you are a large organisation looking for a comprehensive usability testing programme, including information architecture/UX design, benchmarking and market research. For businesses subscriptions start from $19,000 a year.
Many of these suppliers offer a Free trial or demo so don’t let cost put you off trying out card sorting to improve your information architecture. This is such important element of the user experience don’t leave it all to chance. Get some input from real users.
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- About the author: Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.