May 26, 2023

A Beginner's Guide to Card Sorting

Abhishek Kumar


Designing a digital product that meets user needs and expectations is crucial for its success. Creating an effective information architecture that caters to users' mental models can be challenging for UX designers and researchers. This is where card sorting comes in. It is a user research technique that helps in developing an information architecture that aligns with user expectations.

Conducting a successful card sorting study requires careful planning and execution. There are different types of card sorting techniques, and analyzing the results requires expertise. In this beginner's guide to card sorting, we will provide an in-depth understanding of card sorting, types of card sorting, how to conduct a card sort, analyzing the results, and the advantages and limitations of card sorting. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of how to conduct a successful card sorting study and apply the insights to your digital product design.

What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a research method used in user experience (UX) design to help organize and structure information on websites, mobile applications, and other digital products. It is a user-centered technique that helps designers understand how users categorize information and what their mental models are. In a typical card sorting session, users are presented with a set of cards that represent different topics, features, or sections of a website, and are asked to group them in a way that makes sense to them. This process helps designers create a hierarchy of information that aligns with users' mental models, making it easier for them to find what they are looking for on the website or app.

Card sorting can be conducted in-person or remotely through online tools, making it a versatile research method that can be used with a range of study participants. The results of card sorting can provide valuable insights into how users think about information, allowing designers to create a more effective and intuitive information architecture.

Types of card sorting

There are two main types of card sorting: open and closed. Open card sorting allows participants to create their own categories and group the cards in a way that makes sense to them. This approach is useful when designers want to understand how users think about information and what mental models they have. 

Image source : Interaction Design Foundation

Closed card sorting, on the other hand, provides participants with predefined categories and asks them to group the cards accordingly. This approach is useful when designers have a preconceived idea of how the information should be structured and want to validate their assumptions.

Image source : Interaction Design Foundation

Another type of card sorting is hybrid card sorting, which combines elements of both open and closed card sorting. In hybrid card sorting, participants are given a set of predefined categories but are also allowed to create their own categories if they feel they do not fit within the predefined categories. This approach provides designers with more flexibility while still maintaining some structure to the process.

Overall, the type of card sorting used will depend on the research question and the goals of the study. Each type of card sorting has its own advantages and limitations, and designers should carefully consider which approach is most appropriate for their specific project.

How to conduct a card sort?

To conduct a successful card sorting study, you need to follow these steps:

  1. Define the research question: Begin by defining the research question and the objective of the study.
  2. Select the participants: Decide who will participate in the study, and recruit participants who are representative of the target audience.
  3. Choose the type of card sort: Select the type of card sort that best suits your research question.
  4. Prepare the cards: Create the cards with the information that you want participants to sort.
  5. Conduct the study: Ask participants to sort the cards into groups that make sense to them.
  6. Analyze the results: Use the results to inform the design of the digital product.

Analyzing card sorting results

Once you have conducted a card sorting study, it's time to analyze the results. The goal of analyzing the results is to identify patterns in the way participants sorted the cards. This can help you understand how users categorize information and what mental models they have. Here are some steps you can take to analyze the results:

  1. Identify the categories: Look for patterns in the way participants sorted the cards and identify the categories that emerged.

  1. Analyze the data: Use software or manual methods to analyze the data.

  1. Create a visual representation: Create a visual representation of the results, such as a dendrogram or matrix.

  1. Interpret the results: Interpret the results to identify insights and inform the design of the digital product.

Advantages and limitations of card sorting

Card sorting is a user research technique that allows UX designers and researchers to understand how users categorize information and what their mental models are. Card sorting has several advantages that make it a popular research method for information architecture and product design. With advantages it  also has some limitations that should be considered when planning a card sorting study.

Advantages of card sorting:

  1. User-centered approach: Card sorting is a user-centered approach to understanding how users categorize information. It allows designers to create information architecture that is based on user mental models rather than assumptions.

  1. Easy to conduct: Card sorting is relatively easy to conduct and requires minimal resources. It can be done both online and offline, and the participants can be from different locations.

  1. Cost-effective: Card sorting is a cost-effective research method, and it can be conducted with a small budget. It helps to avoid costly mistakes in product design and development.

  1. Provides insights into user behavior: Card sorting provides valuable insights into user behavior, such as how users group information, what labels they use, and how they navigate through content.

  1. Helps to prioritize content: Card sorting helps to prioritize content and identify information gaps. It helps to create a logical structure of information and helps to ensure that the most important information is easily accessible to users.

Limitations of card sorting:

  1. Limited sample size: Card sorting studies typically involve a limited number of participants, and therefore, the results may not be representative of the broader user base.

  1. Results may be subjective: Card sorting results may be subjective and dependent on the participants' interpretation and categorization of the content.

  1. Time-consuming: Conducting a card sorting study can be time-consuming, especially if the study involves a large number of participants.

  1. May not work for complex information: Card sorting may not be effective for complex information that cannot be easily categorized.

  1. Participants may not be representative: Participants may not be representative of the broader user base, leading to biased results.


In conclusion, card sorting is a powerful user research technique that helps create an effective information architecture aligned with user mental models. By understanding users' categorization and mental models, designers can create an intuitive hierarchy of information for a better user experience. Careful planning and execution are crucial for a successful study, and the guide provides steps to conduct a valuable card sorting study. Despite its limitations, such as limited sample size and potential bias, card sorting remains a powerful tool for designing user-centered digital products.


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