How to interpret your card sort results Part 2: closed card sorts and next steps

8 min read Ashlea McKay

In Part 1 of this series we looked at how to interpret results from open and hybrid card sorts and now in Part 2, we’re going to talk about closed card sorts. In closed card sorts, participants are asked to sort the cards into predetermined categories and are not allowed to create any of their own. You might use this approach when you are constrained by specific category names or as a quick checkup before launching a new or newly redesigned website.

In Part 1, we also discussed the two different – but complementary – types of analysis that are generally used together for interpreting card sort results: exploratory and statistical. Exploratory analysis is intuitive and creative while statistical analysis is all about the numbers. Check out Part 1 for a refresher or learn more about exploratory and statistical analysis in Donna Spencer’s book.

Getting started

Closed card sort analysis is generally much quicker and easier than open and hybrid card sorts because there are no participant created category names to analyze – it’s really just about where the cards were placed. There are some similarities about how you might start to approach your analysis process but overall there’s a lot less information to take in and there isn’t much in the way of drilling down into the details like we did in Part 1.

Just like with an open card sort, kick off your analysis process by taking an overall look at the results as a whole. Quickly cast your eye over each individual card sort and just take it all in. Look for common patterns in how the cards have been sorted. Does anything jump out as surprising? Are there similarities or differences between participant sorts? If you’re redesigning an existing information architecture (IA), how do your results compare to the current state? If this is a final check up before launching a live website, how do these results compare to what you learned during your previous research studies?

If you ran your card sort using information architecture tool OptimalSort, head straight to the Overview and Participants Table presented in the results section of the tool. If you ran a moderated card sort using OptimalSort’s printed cards, you’ve probably been scanning them in after each completed session, but now is a good time to double check you got them all. And if you didn’t know about this handy feature of OptimalSort, it’s something to keep in mind for next time!

The Participants Table shows a breakdown of your card sorting data by individual participant. Start by reviewing each individual card sort one by one by clicking on the arrow in the far left column next to the Participants numbers. From here you can easily flick back and forth between participants without needing to close that modal window. Don’t spend too much time on this — you’re just trying to get a general impression of how the cards were sorted into your predetermined categories. Keep an eye out for any card sorts that you might like to exclude from the results. For example participants who have lumped everything into one group and haven’t actually sorted the cards. Don’t worry- excluding or including participants isn’t permanent and can be toggled on or off at anytime.

Once you’re happy with the individual card sorts that will and won’t be included in your results visualizations, it’s time to take a look at the Results Matrix in OptimalSort. The Results Matrix shows the number of times each card was sorted into each of your predetermined categories- the higher the number, the darker the shade of blue (see below).

A screenshot of the Results Matrix tab in OptimalSort.
Results Matrix in OptimalSort.

This table enables you to quickly and easily get across how the cards were sorted and gauge the highest and lowest levels of agreement among your participants. This will tell you if you’re on the right track or highlight opportunities for further refinement of your categories.

If we take a closer look (see below) we can see that in this example closed card sort conducted on the Dewey Decimal Classification system commonly used in libraries, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud was sorted into ‘Philosophy and psychology’ 38 times in study a completed by 51 participants.

A screenshot of the Results Matrix in OptimalSort zoomed in.
Results Matrix in OptimalSort zoomed in with hover.

In the real world, that is exactly where that content lives and this is useful to know because it shows that the current state is supporting user expectations around findability reasonably well. Note: this particular example study used image based cards instead of word label based cards so the description that appears in both the grey box and down the left hand side of the matrix is for reference purposes only and was hidden from the participants.

Sometimes you may come across cards that are popular in multiple categories. In our example study, How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie, is popular in two categories: ‘Philosophy & psychology’ and ‘Social sciences’ with 22 and 21 placements respectively. The remaining card placements are scattered across a further 5 categories although in much smaller numbers.

A screenshot of the Results Matrix in OptimalSort showing cards popular in multiple categories.
Results Matrix showing cards popular in multiple categories.

When this happens, it’s up to you to determine what your number thresholds are. If it’s a tie or really close like it is in this case, you might review the results against any previous research studies to see if anything has changed or if this is something that comes up often. It might be a new category that you’ve just introduced, it might be an issue that hasn’t been resolved yet or it might just be limited to this one study. If you’re really not sure, it’s a good idea to run some in-person card sorts as well so you can ask questions and gain clarification around why your participants felt a card belonged in a particular category. If you’ve already done that great! Time to review those notes and recordings!

You may also find yourself in a situation where no category is any more popular than the others for a particular card. This means there’s not much agreement among your participants about where that card actually belongs. In our example closed card sort study, the World Book Encyclopedia was placed into 9 of 10 categories. While it was placed in ‘History & geography’ 18 times, that’s still only 35% of the total placements for that card- it’s hardly conclusive.

A screenshot of the Results Matrix showing a card with a lack of agreement.
Results Matrix showing a card with a lack of agreement.

Sometimes this happens when the card label or image is quite general and could logically belong in many of the categories. In this case, an encyclopedia could easily fit into any of those categories and I suspect this happened because people may not be aware that encyclopedias make up a very large part of the category on the far left of the above matrix: ‘Computer science, information & general works’. You may also see this happening when a card is ambiguous and people have to guess where it might belong. Again – if you haven’t already – if in doubt, run some in-person card sorts so you can ask questions and get to the bottom of it!

After reviewing the Results Matrix in OptimalSort, visit the Popular Placements Matrix to see which cards were most popular for each of your categories based on how your participants sorted them (see below 2 images).

A screenshot of the Popular Placements Matrix in OptimalSort, with the top half of the diagram showing.
Popular Placements Matrix in OptimalSort- top half of the diagram.
A screenshot of the Popular Placements Matrix in OptimalSort, with the top half of the diagram showing.
Popular Placements Matrix in OptimalSort- scrolled to show the bottom half of the diagram.

The diagram shades the most popular placements for each category in blue making it very easy to spot what belongs where in the eyes of your participants. It’s useful for quickly identifying clusters and also highlights the categories that didn’t get a lot of card sorting love. In our example study (2 images above) we can see that ‘Technology’ wasn’t a popular card category choice potentially indicating ambiguity around that particular category name. As someone familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification system I know that ‘Technology’ is a bit of a tricky one because it contains a wide variety of content that includes topics on medicine and food science – sometimes it will appear as ‘Technology & applied sciences’. These results appear to support the case for exploring that alternative further!

Where to from here?

Now that we’ve looked at how to interpret your open, hybrid and closed card sorts, here are some next steps to help you turn those insights into action!

Once you’ve analyzed your card sort results, it’s time to feed those insights into your design process and create your taxonomy which goes hand in hand with your information architecture. You can build your taxonomy out in Post-it notes before popping it into a spreadsheet for review. This is also a great time to identify any alternate labelling and placement options that came out of your card sorting process for further testing.

From here, you might move into tree testing your new IA or you might run another card sort focussing on a specific area of your website. You can learn more about card sorting in general via our 101 guide.

When interpreting card sort results, don’t forget to have fun! It’s easy to get overwhelmed and bogged down in the results but don’t lose sight of the magic that is uncovering user insights.

I’m going to leave you with this quote from Donna Spencer that summarizes the essence of card sort analysis quite nicely:

Remember that you are the one who is doing the thinking, not the technique… you are the one who puts it all together into a great solution. Follow your instincts, take some risks, and try new approaches. – Donna Spencer

Further reading

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Ashlea McKay

Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than a decade of professional experience spanning both the public and private sectors. Ashlea co-founded Optimal Workshop's UX advice column in 2015 and is based in Australia.