Card sorting

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Light-weight card sorting activity at WUG, Spring 2011
Light-weight card sorting activity at WUG, Spring 2011

Card sorting is a design and usability method that allows to come up with an information architecture (IA) for a site.

According to Donna Spencer and Todd Warfel, “Card sorting is a quick, inexpensive, and reliable method, which serves as input into your information design process. Card sorting generates an overall structure for your information, as well as suggestions for navigation, menus, and possible taxonomies.”

Typical information that can be found is:

  • How do users want to see the information grouped, e.g. by various subjects, by processes, by type of information, etc.
  • How many main categories can be identified
  • Are there different groups of users with different needs ?

Alternative methods:

There exist two primary variants:

In Open card sorting, the most popular method, the participants are given cards with no pre-established groupings. In closed card sorting, participants are asked to place cards into existing groups. The second is usually used to test early information architecture proposals (e.g. the result of open card sorting).

Open card sorting method

Card sorting can be performed with a software tool or physical cards. According to most practitioners, physical cards provide better results. However, using an online program allows to bring in distance participants and the whole preparation and analysis process is faster...


Card sorting can be performed by individuals or small groups. Group sorts provide for richer data, since participants are likely to discuss and the designer can listen in. Individuals however may provide a more accurate variety of views. It is probably better to do group sorts in an early planning stage and individual sorting in a later stage, in particular if you are planning to create a large and complex web site.

Prepare a list of items that summarize all the information and services you plan to have in your website. These items can be collected from early requirements documents, from other similar websites, from brainstorming, etc. Typically you should have between 30 and 100 items.

Create a card for each item. Make sure that the cards are large enough so that participants can read it when spread out. If the meaning of items is not obvious, then you can print an explanation underneath or in the back.

The sorting procedure

(1) Shuffle the cards (each participant/group should get them in a different order)

(2) Ask the participants to group items in a way that makes sense to them.

(3) Ask participants to name the resulting groups of cards.


Firstly find out whether there is a large consensus on the global structure (groupings and labels. In particular pay attention to items for which consensus doesn't exist or participants who see things differently.

Spreadsheets can show how often a card shows in a category, etc.

Various statistical techniques may be used to identify clusters.

See various software tools listed below ....

Closed card sorting method

The goal is to test a proposed information architecture, e.g. one that was found in a prior open card sorting experience.


  • Prepare cards and cards (or sheets) with categories
  • Ask participants to associate each card with an existing category


See also: Tom Tullis list (last updated/checked Nov 2014)

Online tools and services
  • ConceptCodify. Commercial tool, but currently free. Login is required. Tested, works as of Jan 2015.
  • UX Suite includes a card sorting app. 14 days free trial.
  • Optimalsort also here is an commercial online card sorting tool. (Used to provide a free account for which you get 10 people with 3 tasks each for Treejack and Chalkmark, or 30 cards for OptimalSort, not yet verified in 2014/15).
  • Dead: websort was a commercial online card sorting tool with a free 10 participants account. It's now merged with Optimalsort (see above) / Jan 2015.
  • User Experience Suite Includes online card sorting (auf Deutsch/German only)
  • Card Sorting from Usabilitest is a online tool with built-in data analytics (free 3-day trial)
  • User Conversion Card Sorting is a commercial online card sorting tool. For £20 you get unlimited people, recommends category structure for you with extensive data extrusion available.
Web applications you can install
  • Webcat from NIST. It can be installed on Windows systems running IIS, PWS, or Apache web servers and on Unix systems running Apache
Online post-it tools
  •, corkboard with notes and pictures (sharable/embeddable URL)
  • EdiStorm, sticky notes on a boardroom wall.
  • UXSort is a card sorting tool that allows to plan card sorting activities, manage participants and cards, collect card sorting data, analyze data, and create a report. (Windows 7/8). Tested in Jan 2015 on Win 8. It works. Use CTRL-Drag to move cards into groups and groups into groups !
  • The method of sorting (Generic sorting software)
  • xSort is a free card sorting application for Mac OS X only. Assists both card sorting and various can of analysis.
  • uzCardSort was an open source, MPL licensed, Mozilla based tool for conducting and analyzing card sorts. It runs on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux versions of Mozilla and in other Gecko runtimes supporting XPInstall. (This was done for Mozilla 1-0 and is probably not working anymore on recent browsers / As of 2014 installation doesn't seem to work.)


Indexes of articles

  • Card sorting list of introductory and discussion articles, by Dey Alexander.


  • Card Sorting by William Hudson, (29 Mar 2012, when last consulted). This is a very complete introduction with links for further reading.


Card sorting for defining the information architecture
  • Card Sort Instructions (3:31 min video on YouTube) for the no longer existing online tool (this free for education upon request has been replaced by another product). Aug 2009
  • Card Sorting by orangejon (1:40 min video on YouTube). Adds the principle that categories found in a first round then can be tested in a second round (people insert cards into given categories).
  • Paper prototyping: Card sorting (2:26 min video on YouTube) demonstrates how to use litle post-its that then are stuck on A6 index cards that represents categories. No explanations.
  • Card Sort Demonstration for China Institute. This shows a complete card sort using China360Online card sort content. It demonstrates a specific strategy: “The full duration of this card sort was approximately 30 minutes, but was edited to approximately 12 minutes for this video. The test subject in this video has taken on the persona of a Chinese Language Teacher. He is sorting content based on the description of the Chinese Language Teacher from the audience persona matrix. Specific attention has been made to have the test subject verbally discuss why he is making certain placements and the card sort administrator asks open-ended, non-leading questions to assist and keep the process moving.”
  • Excerpts from a two-day card sorting workshop, (2min20s on Vimeo), conducted by Jayson Elliot in 2010. “Several groups of three users at a time were asked to sort cards representing content from a client's web site into piles that they felt were associated with each other. At the end of each session, the groups would switch places with another group of three people, and asked to edit the last group's work. By observing the interactions, listening to users' conversations, and compiling data on how cards were sorted, we were able to gain valuable insights into the ideal structure and taxonomy of the website.” (retrieved Mars 2011).
Other uses
  • Bea - Card Sort. This video demonstrates another kind of card sorting (ranking of options). Users receive cards that describe requirements and have to sort these according to priority.