Lake Michigan's Left Coast

Card Sorting

One of a series of white papers by Elizabeth G. Fagan dba EGF Consulting.


Card Sorting Best Practices

Toward an Intuitive Website

Card sorting is a way to think about how users want or expect to see information on your website. Participants in a card-sorting session are asked to organize the content from your website in a way that makes sense to users. Participants review items from your website, and then they group the items into categories. They then label the groups, forming a new navigation structure.

Usually a card sort is performed with actual users, but you can perform a card-sorting exercise internally, with staff members.

Benefits of Card Sorting

Card sorting helps you build the structure for your website, decide what to put on each page, and label the navigation categories. It helps to ensure that you organize information on your website in a way that is logical and intuitive to your users.

Types of Card Sorting

There are two types of card sorts: an open card sort and a closed card sort.

In an open card sort, participants are asked to organize the cards into groups that make sense to them and then name each group. In a closed card sort, participants are asked to sort items into pre-defined categories.

An open card sort is typically done when you want to learn how users group content and understand the terms or labels users call each category. A closed card sort typically works best when you are working with a pre-defined set of categories and you want to learn how users sort content items into each category. A closed sort works well after an open sort. By conducting an open card sort first, you can begin to identify categories of content. You can then use a closed card sort to see how well the category labels work.

Preparing for the Participants
  • Select participants to represent the range of users. Draw from different user groups with different levels of experience.
  • Explain the card-sorting process to the participants, perhaps in a kick-off meeting.
  • Plan about one hour for each session.
  • Arrange for a space where the participants have enough room to spread the cards out on a table. A conference room works well.
Preparing the Cards
  1. Perform a content inventory. List the content topics or types of information that you are likely to have on the site (if it’s a new site) or the content on your current site. Record a two- or three-word summary of the actual page content instead of the page title or navigation links. If a page has two or more topics, record those separately.
  2. Write each topic on a separate white index card. If you like, print labels with the name of each topic from your content inventory and attach them to the cards. Each card represents a unique chunk of content.
  3. Include some blank white cards for content that participants may believe to be missing.
  4. Include colored index cards on which the participants will write page titles and navigation labels.
  5. Make a set of cards for each participant or group of participants. Consider numbering the cards if you have a lot of participants; you can record numbers in Excel and reuse the cards.
Sorting the Cards
  1. Give each participant or group of participants a set of cards.
  2. Ask the participants to group the cards in a way that makes sense to them. Many participants start by placing the first card on the table and then look at the second card to see whether it belongs in the same group or if it deserves its own category—and so on through the set of cards.
  3. After participants have grouped the cards, you can ask them to name or label each group with the colored cards. What words would the participant expect to see on the home page or second-level page that would lead the participant to that particular group of content items?
  4. At the end, if the participant has too many groups, ask if some of the groups could be combined.

Each card sort represents an information architecture; the colored cards make up the navigation, and the white cards are the pages.
In cases where multiple participants perform sorts, there are different ways of analyzing the data. Complete site maps could be created in Visio or Excel. The cards can be pinned to a wall and reviewed. If you numbered the cards, you might use Excel to perform sorts. The website team should look for commonalities among the participants’ sorts.

Next steps are interface design and content development.

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