Card sorting is a research method that helps uncover users’ mental models and preferences for organizing information. What makes sense to the product makers sometimes wouldn’t necessarily make sense to the end users. Card sorting provides insights into better structuring the content of your website or system as participants categorize a set of cards or topics into groups that make sense to them. There are two types of card sorting techniques: Open and closed card sort. Choosing between an open card sort and a closed card sort depends on the specific goals and stage of the research.
For a more detailed step-by-step, see Use card sorting to have testers categorize information.
Open card sorting:
In open card sort, participants are given a set of cards or topics, and tasked to categorize them into groups that they create themselves, revealing their mental models for organizing information. It is preferred when you’re in early stages of design or information architecture (IA) development as it lets you understand users’ natural thought processes for grouping information. Thus, without any predefined groups or categories, it may lead to new ideas into grouping and unbiased results.
Closed card sorting:
Unlike open card sort, participants are provided with predetermined sets of groups or categories. It is useful for validating existing information architecture (IA) or navigation structures, ensuring they align with users’ expectations. One downside of employing closed card sort is that it doesn’t mimic the natural way of users browsing information as they are first provided with topic items to fit into predetermined bins.
Another approach to facilitating a successful card sort study with minimizing bias is to begin with an open card sort to have participants create their own categories, and then follow up with closed card sort to provide categories that you initially had in mind. This way, participants will be provided with categories that they think are necessary on top of the categories that you want to test.
Below are a few tips to consider when setting up a card sort study:
- When running card sort through a software or digitally, the usability of the software can influence how participants engage the task. Thus, it is important to provide clear guidelines on what to do especially when participants may not be familiar with the task of dragging and dropping items into categories. Make sure to test run the task before inviting participants.
- Use clear keywords that you want to test into the topic items. Keep the cards short and concise to the point, and avoid using identical terminologies as participants may tend to group them together regardless of their actual meaning.
- Always randomize and counterbalance the order of the topic items being presented in order to avoid bias.