Card sorting adventures – Part 1

Cards sorted into groups

Card sorting is one my favourite techniques for designing the navigation structure of websites and one that I’ve used on several projects. My methods are fairly simple but may be useful for anyone wishing to use card sorting to enhance their information architecture design work.

What’s card sorting?

In a nutshell, card sorting involves getting people to organise cards (each card has one topic or item of content written on it) into groups and then give those groups headings. This type of card sorting is specifically known as open card sorting. You might want to read about closed card sorting too (I haven’t done it before). This relatively simple task provides an insight into how they think information on the website should be organised – and can serve as a starting point for the development of a navigation structure.

For a more comprehensive definition, Information Architecture guru Donna Spencer has written a fantastic guide to card sorting, which I highly recommend.

Some challenges

For each of my projects I worked with the website managers/editors – not external users or stakeholders. These staff have been working closely with their website, usually for several years, and they find it hard to think about their content as separate from the existing site structure. For the card-sorting task to be successful they must try not to think about how their current site looks and instead put themselves into the shoes of their audience

Another challenge for the card sorter is resisting the urge to use company jargon and acronyms for naming their groups. I’ve spent a lot of time working in government and ‘gov-speak’ is a bizarre language of its own. Yes, these words might make sense in-house, but the public will have a hard time interpreting it. I continually have to ask the question, ‘Would your users know what that means?’. What does the visitor want to find? What words or phrases will make the most sense to the visitor?

How I go about it

There are two ways I can chose to go about this. It all depends on the group of people and website I’m working with:

  1. For larger groups and websites, and projects with stricter project management requirements, I’ll use Donna Spencer’s card sorting analysis spreadsheet. The cards have to be created using her guidelines to ensure the reporting features work. Visit her site to find out more.
  2. For smaller groups and websites, I usually keep it fairly casual. One workshop with some in-depth discussion is usually enough for me to understand what is required, without having to do any complex analysis of the results.

Spreadsheet with card titlesFor option number 2, these are my steps:

Create the cards

Beforehand I go through the existing website and make a list in a spreadsheet (see image) of topics and pieces of content, such as:

  • events calendar
  • about us
  • annual report
  • membership form
  • FAQs
  • service A
  • service B

I don’t list absolutely everything – for example, with FAQs, I won’t list every single one, I’ll just add FAQs as a single item, or maybe break it up into FAQ topics if that’s how they’re currently organised. Some websites have lots of easily discernible bits of content and others don’t. One thing I’ve been quite lucky with, is that the sites have all been quite small. The lists ranged from 30 to 70 items at the most.

I then expand each cell in the Excel file to approximately business card size and print them off – one copy of the list per participant. A small group is ideal, around 5. Any more than 10 people and it’ll be too hard to manage.

Then comes the tedious part: cutting up the paper so each list item becomes an individual ‘card’. If you can delegate this job I highly recommend it!

Another option for creating the cards is to buy business card-size blank cards and handwrite the items on them. I did this for my first card sorting workshop and while the thicker cardboard made the cards easier to handle, it was a bit of a pain writing out 7×40 lots of cards.

A pile of supplies for a card sorting workshop

Sort the cards

For the activity, I give each person a pack of the cards and some post-it notes. You’ll also need to make sure you’re in a room with a good amount of table space, so people can spread their cards out. I then ask them to go through the cards and begin sorting them into groupings that make sense to them personally. They can use the post-it notes to write titles or headings for each of their groups.

I usually give them 10-15 minutes for the task and hover around answering any questions. Sometimes I’ll even do the activity myself, just to show them how someone outside of their team thinks about their content.


After this I’ll lead them in a discussion of the results. I usually get one person to start by explaining how they’ve sorted their cards and their reasoning. This often sets off all sorts of interesting debate and I’m not too fussed if the rest of the session doesn’t follow any sort of set structure.

Once the session is over, I collect all the cards, keeping them in their group order and taking photos, just in case they get mixed up. Back at my desk, I’ll simply write up some notes and begin drafting a basic navigation structure based on the agreements made in the workshop.

I should note, that the card sort results are not the only technique I use for developing website navigation structures – they are simply a tool to help get the process started. Sometimes the results are really useful and the finalised structure will be closely aligned with the outcomes of the original activity, and other times the navigation will require more testing and discussion with a wider group of users and stakeholders.

So, that’s a general overview of how I use card sorting – in my next post I’ll go into further detail about some of the successes and fails I’ve had.


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