How to use card sorting to work out how your users think

4 min read David Renwick

Few methods surpass card sorting when you need to figure out how your users understand and categorize information.

Whether you’re working on a new website, mobile app, intranet or even a physical store, this user research method is a powerful way of getting into the minds of the people you’re trying to serve.

For those of you unfamiliar with this method or just needing a recap, a card sort involves participants sorting cards containing different items into groups. It’s as simple as that. You can use the results to then determine how to group and label the information on your app or website in a way that makes sense to the people using it.

When to use card sorting

Imagine for a moment that you’re the owner of a small fitness apparel store called FitSmart, and you’ve just ordered in a shipment of new fitness trackers. You need to add these new products to your website, but you’re not exactly sure how they fit in alongside the shoes, clothing, equipment and supplements that you also offer.

This is where card sorting comes into play.

With this user research method, you can quickly determine where people might expect to find a fitness tracker category on your website. The card sort will present the test participants with a list of cards containing the names of items found on your website, and ask users to sort the cards into groups that make sense to them.

Remember: You are not your user, and while it is possible to take an educated guess as to where to position these products, using a card sort will take out the guesswork.

One of the other benefits of card sorting is that you can routinely come back to the method whenever you need to update your website.

How to run your first card sort

Running a card sort is quite straightforward – and much simpler when using an online, unmoderated tool. Yes, you can run a card sort in person using paper cards, but you’ll then also have to coordinate with participants to have them meet you in a physical location, actually host each card sort and carry out all of the analysis manually.

Using an online tool like OptimalSort eliminates all of the admin and instead allows you to get on with the task of actually analyzing your results and making effective decisions. If you’d like to try card sorting, you can give OptimalSort a go for free and then follow this guide to set up your first test. We’d love to hear how you get on!

Pair card sorting with tree testing

When you’re working in the realm of information architecture – whether that’s reorganizing the way your website is laid out or trying to arrange categories in a mobile shopping app – card sorting isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Card sorting can show you which things should go together, but you also need to be able to work out how people make their way through a website structure. This is where a method called tree testing comes into play.

Also known as reverse card sorting, you can use a tree test to evaluate the findability of different items. In a tree test, you task participants with completing a certain action (like finding fitness trackers) and observe them as they navigate through a text-only version of your website structure. By recording every step that they take, including any wrong turns and how long it takes them to complete the task, you can make more informed changes to the specific placement of different pages and elements.

It’s best to use card sorting and tree testing together.

  • If you’re building a new website, start with a card sort to group items together, and then use a tree test to put your structure through its paces.
  • If you’re trying to fix or update an existing website, start with a tree test to assess the current structure, then move to a card sort to make changes based on the results of the tree test.

Wrap up

Card sorting is one of the most effective ways of building products and services that are intuitive for the people using them. If you’re interested in learning more about this research method, check out the hub page for card sorting on the Optimal Workshop Blog.