What is card sorting?
Learn how card sorting can improve your website's information architecture. Discover different methods, including closed, open, and hybrid card sorting, and when to use them.
Are you struggling with how to organize information on your website or application? Do you want to understand how your users think about and categorize information? Look no further than card sorting, a user experience research method that can provide valuable insights into how people group and organize information.
By asking participants to sort a set of cards into categories and explain their reasoning, you can gain a better understanding of how they think.
In this article, we'll explore the different methods of card sorting. We’ll cover:
- Closed card sorting
- Open card sorting
- Hybrid card sorting
- Unmoderated card sorting
- Moderated card sorting
Plus, we’ll give you tips on how to choose between these methods, and include plenty of examples throughout.
So, whether you're a UX researcher, designer, product manager, or marketer – or you’re simply interested in improving the user experience of your website or app – read on to discover the benefits of card sorting.
TL;DR: A quick glance at different card sorting methods
What is closed card sorting?
Closed card sorting is a method of card sorting where participants sort cards into predefined categories. It’s a useful way to understand how users group and categorize information.
During a closed card sorting exercise, you provide participants with a set of cards representing information or content and a set of predefined categories to sort the cards into.
Closed card sorting is useful for evaluating how intuitive your existing navigation is, or for testing the suitability of predefined categories for organizing information.
When would you run a closed card sort?
Closed card sorting is commonly used during the information architecture (IA) phase of product development to validate proposed categories or labels.
By presenting users with predefined categories and asking them to sort content into those categories, you can evaluate whether your proposed categories align with the mental models of your users.
What can you use closed card sorting for?
As we’ve seen, closed card sorting can be helpful for defining IA. Here are some examples of when closed card sorting might be useful:
- News website: To understand how users categorize news content (e.g. politics, sports, entertainment).
- E-commerce website: To understand how users categorize products (e.g. clothing, electronics, household items).
- E-learning website: To understand how students categorize learning resources (e.g. courses, videos, quizzes).
- Health and wellness app: To understand how users categorize health and wellness content (e.g. recipes, workouts, mental health resources).
What is open card sorting?
Open card sorting involves participants grouping and labeling a set of cards without predefined categories.
Participants are free to create their own categories and group the cards in a way that makes sense to them. You can also ask participants to explain their reasoning behind the groupings.
One advantage of open card sorting is that it allows participants to create categories that are more natural and meaningful to them, rather than organizing cards according to predefined categories that may not match their mental models. However, this approach can also result in a large number of categories, which will require additional analysis to create a useful navigation structure.
When would you run an open card sort?
Open card sorting is typically used in the early stages of product development, when the structure and organization of your content isn’t defined yet. It can be used to gather insights into how users naturally categorize information, and to help inform the creation of an effective information architecture.
Open card sorting can be used to:
- Identify common groupings: By presenting users with a set of items and asking them to sort them into groups based on their own criteria, you can identify common groupings and understand how users perceive the content.
- Test and refine category labels: Open card sorting can help identify effective category labels by allowing users to make suggestions. This can help refine language and terminology used in your IA.
- Inform the creation of a new information architecture: By analyzing the results of an open card sort, you can create a new IA that’s aligned with users' mental models and reflects their natural way of categorizing information.
What can you use open card sorting for?
Open card sorting is useful when you want to understand how users naturally categorize information. Aside from using it to help define the IA of your app or website, it can be used for things like:
- Conducting a content audit: Use open card sorting to organize a large amount of content into categories that make sense to your users. This can help you identify areas where content can be consolidated, reorganized, or labeled more clearly.
- Product development: Understand how users think about different features or aspects of your product, such as pricing, functionality, or customer service. This can be used to prioritize development efforts and ensure that your product meets the needs of your users.
- User research: Gain insights into how users think about a particular topic or issue. This can be used to inform the design of user interfaces, content, or marketing messaging.
How to choose between open and closed card sorting
Both open and closed card sorting can be useful in different situations. Here are some factors to consider when deciding between closed and open card sorting:
- Your research goals: If your goal is to test a predefined set of categories, then closed card sorting may be more suitable. But if your goal is to gain insights into how users naturally categorize information, then open card sorting may be the way to go.
- What stage of the design process you’re at: Closed card sorting may be more appropriate in the early stages of the design process, when your goal is to establish a basic structure for content or information. Open card sorting may be more appropriate in later stages, when your goal is to refine and optimize the structure based on user feedback.
- Size and complexity of your dataset: Closed card sorting can be useful when your dataset is large and complex, and predefined categories can help to simplify the analysis. Open card sorting may be more appropriate when your dataset is smaller and less complex, and there aren’t any clear categories.
- Time and resources: Closed card sorting can be more efficient when time and resources are limited, as it doesn’t require a lot of effort to set up and analyze the results. Open card sorting requires more time and resources, but can provide richer insights into how users categorize information.
In general, closed card sorting is best suited to situations where there’s a predefined set of categories that need to be tested, while open card sorting is best suited for situations where the goal is to gain insights into how users naturally categorize information.
However, a hybrid approach that combines closed and open card sorting can provide the best of both worlds, allowing you to gain both qualitative and quantitative insights into how users categorize information.
What is hybrid card sorting?
Hybrid card sorting combines elements of closed and open card sorting. In hybrid card sorting, you give participants a set of cards and a set of predefined categories, but they can also create their own categories.
During a hybrid card sorting session, participants sort the cards into the predefined categories first, and then create additional categories if they feel that some cards don’t fit. They can also label these categories and explain their rationale
Hybrid card sorting is useful for evaluating the effectiveness of an existing navigation structure, while still allowing participants to provide their own insights and perspectives. This method can also help to identify gaps or areas for improvement in the existing navigation.
What can you use hybrid card sorting for?
Hybrid card sorting can be useful when you want to gain both quantitative and qualitative insights into how your users categorize information. Here are some examples of when to choose a hybrid approach:
- Redesigning your website: Use a hybrid approach to understand how users categorize different types of content on your website. Start with open card sorting to gain qualitative insights into how users think about the content, and then follow up with closed card sorting to get more quantitative data on how users would like to see the content organized.
- Developing your content strategy: Start with open card sorting to gain qualitative insights into how users think about your existing content, and then follow up with closed card sorting to get more quantitative data on what content users want to see.
- Prioritizing product features: Conduct open card sorting to gain qualitative insights into how users think about your product, and then follow up with closed card sorting to get more quantitative data on which features are most important to your users.
- Conducting market research: Gain insights into how users think about a particular topic or issue. Start with an open card sorting to get qualitative insights into how users think about the topic, and then follow up with closed card sorting to get more quantitative data on which aspects of the topic are most important to users.
By combining open and closed card sorting methods, you can gain a more complete picture of how users think, and make informed decisions about how to design products, websites, and content that meets their needs.
What is unmoderated card sorting?
Unmoderated card sorting is run remotely and without a moderator present. To make this easy to manage, you can use a user testing tool with built-in card sorting functionality, like UsabilityHub.
In an unmoderated card sorting study, you provide your participants with instructions on how to complete the task, as well as any necessary background information about the study.
What is unmoderated card sorting good for?
Unmoderated card sorting can be useful in a number of situations, such as:
- Large sample sizes: Unmoderated card sorting can allow for a large number of participants to be included. This can be particularly useful when you want to understand how a large and diverse user group organizes and categorizes information.
- Cost-effective research: Unmoderated card sorting eliminates the need for a researcher to be present for each participant, which can reduce the cost of conducting the study. This can be beneficial if you have limited research budgets.
- Remote research: Unmoderated card sorting can be conducted entirely online, which can make it a convenient option when wanting to recruit participants in different locations.
- Quick results: Unmoderated card sorting can often produce results more quickly than moderated card sorting, as participants can complete the task at their own pace.
It’s worth noting that unmoderated card sorting may not be suitable for all research questions, particularly if your project requires an in-depth understanding of the reasoning behind participants' sorting decisions. In these cases, moderated card sorting may be more appropriate.
What is moderated card sorting?
Moderated card sorting involves a moderator guiding participants through the task, encouraging them to think aloud, and facilitating discussion about the results. It’s useful for gaining a deeper understanding of how users organize information.
Moderated card sorting can be conducted in-person or remotely, and allows for follow-up questions to gain detailed insights into user perceptions. However, it can be more time-consuming and expensive than unmoderated card sorting.
What is moderated card sorting good for?
Moderated card sorting can be particularly useful in the following situations:
- Complex research questions: Moderated card sorting is useful when trying to answer complex research questions, particularly those related to how users think about and organize information. You can ask more detailed follow-up questions and help to elicit more nuanced responses.
- Early-stage design research: Moderated card sorting can be useful during the early stages of design research, when you’re trying to establish an understanding of how users think about and organize information.
- Small sample sizes: Moderated card sorting can be useful when the sample size is small. You can ensure that the data collected is of high quality and can help to provide a more detailed understanding of user behavior.
- Exploring new ideas: Moderated card sorting can be used to explore new ideas or approaches to IA, helping you to test new concepts and determine whether they’re likely to be effective.
Moderated card sorting can be a good way to gain a deep understanding of how users think about and organize information. It can be particularly useful in situations where you need to understand user behavior or where the design problem is complex and requires a nuanced understanding of user needs.
Are you ready to take your research to the next level with card sorting? UsabilityHub has all the tools you need. Check out our card sorting guide for tips on how to run a remote card sorting test. When you’re ready to try it out for yourself, sign up for a free UsabilityHub plan to get access to unlimited active tests.