Have you ever come across a website and wondered how they managed to organize all their content?

Whether you’re looking at a site with just a dozen pages or into the millions it just seems to make sense. It feels natural and intuitive. You can find information exactly where you expect to see it.

Boy, a very logical person must have been in charge of that process, you might think.

But like all things in UX, the decision was influenced by the users themselves.

It’s all to do with a technique called card sorting.

What is Card Sorting?

While the way content is organized can seem very intuitive and obvious when a user lands on a site, the truth is that it was anything but at the beginning.

With so much content and almost endless possibilities to organize that content, it can feel daunting to even begin the process of organization.

Enter the invaluable technique of card sorting where content, especially large volumes, can be organized in a way that feels natural and intuitive.

It isn’t just limited to websites or software either, it can apply to almost anything in the online and offline world where organization is needed, from ecommerce sites to shop floors.

There are a couple of different ways to do it depending on whether you already have predefined group names or not, but the goal is always the same: organize content in a way that makes the most sense to users.

4 Benefits of Card Sorting

There are four benefits to card sorting:

Match mental models

When you organize content in a way that feels logical and intuitive to your users, you are matching your design model with their mental model. In other words, how a user expects something to work and how it actually works.

This is important because if you get the mental model wrong, you’re fighting an uphill battle. At best you’ll frustrate users; at worst users will give up soon after they begin.

Use the right language

Card sorting allows you to understand the language and terminology that makes most sense to your users. You may already know technical terms and jargon used in your industry, and think that users have the same understanding as you do. But this is rarely the case.

Your users soon let you know which titles, link names and labels all make the most sense to them.

Gain Confidence

Instead of taking a stab in the dark, you gather real users – and by real users we mean people outside the company – to take the guesswork out of the equation.

This gives you confidence that your content organization will feel natural and intuitive.

Validate Assumptions

This more applies to closed card sorting, but if you already have predefined group namesyou we can validate whether your groups match up to your users’ mental models or not. If not, you can think about reorganizing our content.

Open vs. Closed Card Sorting

Open Card Sorting

Open card sorting is generally the most common and preferred method.

Though the technique is called card sorting, post-it notes are the best things to use due to how easy they are to rearrange.

The process is as follows:

  1. Write down all the content (typically categories and sub-categories, or pages for smaller sites) you want to organize on Post-it notes
  2. Places the Post-it notes on a wall/whiteboard
  3. Ask users to organize the notes into groups
  4. Ask users to give each group a name

Rules:

  1. There must be more than one group
  2. There must be a maximum of 10 groups
  3. Participants are not allowed to name a group “Misc”, “Other” or similar terms

Closed Card Sorting

If you already have predefined group names and want users to organize content within one of these groups, you can use closed card sorting.

The process is similar and the rules as above remain the same. The only difference is that this time users organize the content into predefined groups – i.e. to groups you have already come up with and which may already exist on your site.

The main benefit is that it’s let you validate assumptions to see whether your current categories correspond to your users’ mental models. But keep in mind that closed card sorting can also pigeonhole your users into organizing content in a way in which they wouldn’t naturally browse.

If you already have a popular site and don’t want to confuse your users with a drastic change, closed card sorting can be useful. However, completely reorganizing your content into new groups – i.e. open card sorting, may still be a better choice.

How Many Users Do You Need?

Whether you’re doing an open or closed card sort, 15-20 users are all you need.

This is the magic number that allows you to see patterns begin to form.

You could always use more than 15-20 if you wanted to, but you reach a point of diminishing returns and the money can be better spent elsewhere.

Online vs Offline Card Sorting

It can be a real challenge (and costly) to get 15-20 users to come to a physical location and begin the card sorting process. And remember what we said earlier, card sorting is about using real users, not people within the company, as they are the ones you are designing a product for.

So, what can you do?

Thankfully, there are a number of online tools (Optimal Sort, User Zoom, xSort, UsabilitiTest) that allow you to do this remotely. The principle remains the same, but it is far simpler and cheaper.

These drag-and-drop tools often automatically analyze results , displaying the most commonly grouped together items, the most commonly used group names, and the likelihood of two items being paired together. These charts definitely make life easier when interpreting results and presenting findings to clients and stakeholders.

There’s just one downside, which is there can be real value in speaking to users in person. You can gather qualitative data as you ask questions and learn more about how they came to decide how to organize the content.