How to Conduct an Effective Card Sorting Session for Improved IA

7 min read Optimal Workshop

Whether you’re designing a new website or redesigning an existing one, card sorting is a quick, reliable and inexpensive research tool that can significantly improve your information architecture. By improving your information architecture, you’re giving yourself the best chance at delivering a product that is accessible, usable and relevant.

So, what exactly is card sorting? In short, card sorting is a user research technique that helps you discover how people understand and categorize information. Since great information architecture is built on the premise of organizing and categorizing information, card sorting is a secret weapon for website and digital product designers around the world. Actually, the tool is super common, and for good reason.

In this article we’ll help you prepare and conduct card sorting research. We’ll also help you make sense of the data you find and how to apply it to design great information architecture.

Planning and Preparation

Card sorting delivers the best results when you clearly define your goals. The narrower your scope, the more insightful and practical your results will be. It’s important to focus on one goal at a time when planning a card sorting study. What part of your information structure do you need clarification on? Organizing FAQ’s, product categories in an online store, or submenus, are common examples of card sorting projects.

Next, how best can you feasibly recruit participants? Depending on your situation, you may prefer conducting remote card sorts or in-person. Card sorts in person allow you to read body language and you may be more comfortable asking qualitative “why” questions of your participants. Whereas the benefits of remote card sorts, like OptimalSort, is that you aren’t constrained by location or time – just set it up, share the link with participants, then quickly analyze the results. In either case, be sure to recruit participants that represent the demographics of your intended users.

The next step is to prepare the cards themselves. The cards will represent the elements/topics that you wish to organize. Typically, you should aim for between 30 and 50 cards in order to get enough useful data. It also forces you to include only the most relevant cards. Additionally, they should also be on the same conceptual level to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

Finally, decide if you’re asking participants to group the cards based on categories that you decide (closed card sorting), or if participants will be able to create their own groups for cards (open card sorting). You can also facilitate hybrid card sorting which starts off as a closed card sort, but gives participants the option to create additional categories themselves. When you’re deciding, think about your task list (how you’re asking using to sort the cards) and how open-ended you’re prepared for the answers to be. Closed card sorting will narrow your results, whereas open will broaden your results.

Conducting the Session

Now that you’ve done the preparation, it’s time for the fun part! How involved you’ll be depends on whether you’re conducting remote or in-person sessions. We’ll discuss in-person card sorting first, then we’ll point out how remote card sorting differs.

An overview of conducting in-person card sorts:

  1. First, shuffle the cards and give them to your participant(s). Ask them to look at each card, then direct them to either organize into groups on their own (open) or into the groups you have provided (closed). It’s important to emphasize to the participant that there are no right or wrong answers. Remember, you’re looking for a real, unfiltered insight into how people organize your information. You can even ask them to think out loud while they’re sorting the cards to gain additional, qualitative insight. One benefit of group sessions is that they usually do this anyway via natural discussion.
  2. Then, if you’re running an open card sort, ask your participant(s) to name the groups they have organized. This will help you to understand the rationale behind their decisions and will give you some pointers when you come to labeling information architecture.
  3. Once the session is complete, ask participants some open questions. Did you find any cards difficult to place? Did some overlap? Were any left out entirely? This sort of questioning, along with your notes throughout the session, will prove invaluable when you come to analyze the results.
  4. Carefully collect the cards and make a record of the groups – there’s nothing worse than clearing the table and messing up the cards before you do this!

Remote card sorts differ from remote sessions in that once you’ve set up the cards in a tool like OptimalSort, you’re good to go. No printing, no shuffling, no resetting. You simply send a link to your participants and ask them to complete the task within a defined timeframe. Online card sorts are generally quicker and less time consuming in this respect, and they may allow you to find more participants and therefore more data.

There are two key things to highlight when running a remote card sort session. Firstly, ensure your instructions are clear and concise. Unlike an in-person session you won’t get the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings. Secondly, you may consider a follow up questionnaire to gather additional qualitative insights. Check out this facilitation guide for more pointers on remote card sorting.

Analyzing and Interpreting the Results

Now that you’ve got all of your juicy data, it’s time to analyze it! If you ran a remote card sort, there will be some manual processing of your results (usually translating data to excel) which can be time consuming, whereas online tools will generally have analysis tools built right in. This is great for getting quick insights and quick development of information architecture.

When analyzing results, you’re really looking for patterns by identifying similar groups and labels. Using a tool like OptimalSort, for example, you’ll be provided with a few reports that will help you identify patterns and themes:

  • Participants Table: Review all of the people who took part in your card sort and segment or exclude them.
  • Participant-Centric Analysis (PCA): See the most popular grouping strategies as well as the alternatives among those people who disagreed with the first strategy.
  • Dendrograms: Quickly spot popular groups of cards and get a sense of how similar or different your participant’s card sorts were.

Strong patterns or themes that emerge from the data tell us that participants understood categories in a similar way. On the flipside, different or disperse patterns tell us that there was no clear consensus on how information should be categorized. Both insights support effective design of information architecture. The goal is to find common ground in order to create seamless user experiences.

So far we’ve discussed statistical analysis which is all about the hard numbers. But it’s important to infuse some of the qualitative data into your reporting too. If you find that there is confusion within your results or no clear themes, you need to understand why. This is where the interpretation of questionnaire feedback or notes from in-person sessions become so valuable.

Using a combination of your data and your insights, it’s helpful to pull a summary together of your findings in a report. This can be shared with the wider team who have influence on the design of information architecture. Check out this analysis guide for more information on interpreting your results.


Card sorting is a fairly quick and straightforward way to inform information architecture design. It allows us to put the user at the center of our decisions surrounding the categorisation and grouping of information. Why is this important? Because as designers we can often assume how things should be organized. It’s too easy to be influenced by internal factors, like organization structures and the status quo. Don’t fall into this trap – use card sorting to gather clear, unbiased feedback on your information architecture.

Effective card sorting has clear objectives and is best suited to answering specific, information-related questions. We recommend using it when you need clarification around specific information structure, such navigation, menus and product categorisation.

As we’ve discussed, there are a few different approaches to card sorting research. They all have their place, so hoose which one best suits your needs. There’s a lot of resources available if you want to learn more. A good place to start is our card sorting 101 article. Good luck and happy researching!