Most of the time, card sorts are used as a part of larger Information Architecture (IA) projects. That could mean designing a whole new website or perhaps re-designing a site to make it more usable or functional.

At their essence, card sorts are used to gain insight into the different ways people categorize content. That content may be listings in a catalog, pages on a website, or entire sections of a multi-layered site. When we conduct a card sort, we have many different people participate, so that we get a variety of perspectives on different ways content could be sorted. The end goal, of course, is to create an end-product that is intuitive and easy-to-use for a target audience.

So where do we begin? Card sorts can be deceptive in that they seem very straightforward and easy to conduct. But what if a website is massive, with many individual websites nested within it? What if a website has thousands of pages of content? These potential difficulties are what making planning the most important stage of a card sort. Below are a few questions you should ask yourself when designing your sort.

  • What is my need? What kinds of questions do you want to be answered? Are you trying to figure out what the broad concepts are in order to create section headings? Are you trying to double check that your working website design is on track? Perhaps you’re looking to explore one idea in detail or compare the ways different consumer groups categorize your content. Regardless, you will need to figure out what your essential questions are before you can find their answers.

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  • Should I conduct an open or closed sort? Open sorts let participants categorize content, then name the categories themselves. Close sorts have a set number of named categories that participants must then sort content into. In general, open sorts allow you to gain more accurate and in-depth insights. However, if you have an overarching IA that is already in place and will not be changed, a closed sort may be necessary.
  • Should participants work in teams or as individuals?  Both have their own merits. Having participants work in teams can be useful because you can listen to their discussions and take notes while the sort is running. At the same time, individuals are often easier to coordinate. The disadvantage to group sorts is that groupthink and social desirability bias (saying what you think others want to hear) can come into play. On the flip side, individual sorts often don’t provide many conversations to listen to and disseminate.
  • What level of content do I want to be sorted? I mentioned above that sometimes, websites are so massive it would just be impossible to conduct a card sort using every piece of content. For this reason, finding representative content is key. Make sure you choose pages that are all at the same navigation level within the website’s existing IA if you have one. Also, make sure the content is not too similarly worded, or participants will group it together regardless of whether or not the content fits together.

There are, of course, many many more steps in conducting your card sort and analyzing the data that comes out of it. Hopefully, these tips will help to guide your thinking on the front end of your next sort.

Also published on Medium.