Card Sorting

Card Sorting is a participatory, user-centered technique used to understand the attitudes, values, preferences, and behaviors of participants as they relate to the domain under study. It is used when we need to develop a deep understanding of the audience’s mental models or conditioning. Card Sorting also gives insight into how participants make sense of the subject under consideration.

In simple words, card sorting can be used to figure the way individuals break down a problem, concept or task in their head, and sort them based on their priorities and the relative value of broken down items. Card Sorting, therefore, can elucidate the mental models of individuals, how they structure a solution to a problem and the commonalities as well as differences between participants and user groups.

The method as such involves participants categorizing different items such as words or images on separate cards based on predefined criteria outlined by the researcher. Whether the objective of using the method is exploratory or evaluative will determine the way the process is designed.

While online Card Sorting research makes sense for projects that come further along in the design process, the card sorting technique is best applied at the front end of the design process through an in-person session. In-person card sorting allows the researcher to probe respondents on their sorting decisions and gain valuable insights that would be tedious using online software.

Card Sorting can be open or closed where the exercise can be conducted either in-person/ individually or online.

Open Sort (Participants can categorize items as they please)Open sorts allows for participant-driven discoveries, limiting any preconceived barriers by the designer.Lends the users more flexibility chances of identifying criticalities are higherDifferent participants may categorize cards differently which can add complexity when consolidating findings
Closed Sort (Participants can categorize items based on pre-defined categories set by the researcher)A closed sort assumes that the researcher knows the categories that matter to the participants and/or to the research projectIt is an observational probing technique for the researcher as they have set the pre-defined criteria for categorizing different items into groupsThe users have lesser flexibility in sorting. The method assumes that the researcher is completely aware of the project which may not always be the case


Advantages of Card Sorting

01 Online Card Sorting tools

Online Card Sorting tools allow for much larger samples than would be possible otherwise.

02 Rich insights with small samples

The method allows a sample size of 25 participants to arrive at insights that would be possible with a sample of 100 in other methods.


Disadvantages of Card Sorting

01 Domain knowledge

In case of pre-defined categories, the success of the method depends upon the participant’s domain knowledge.

02 Strict guidelines

The method requires that the participants stick to the guidelines and instructions of the researcher.

03 Recording findings

The number of times the exercise is performed, the result must be recorded as any missed record of findings could sway the results elsewhere.

Think Design recommendation

Card Sorting by its very nature is a method you would use when you want to discover categories, groups or interrelationships. Use this method when you want to know how users respond to visual cues and you want to capture the similarities and differences. Card Sorting needs to be followed up with synthesis in order to arrive at insights.

Say, you want to group information to arrive at Information Architecture. Use Card Sorting as a method if you want to invite more than one participant and discover if there are alternative ways of grouping information and open up those possibilities for synthesis.

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