Card Sorting: A Step-by-Step Guide

Classification and keywords

Quantitative, Qualitative, Difficulty-low, Face-to-face, Users, Economic, Remote.


Card sorting, Dendrogram, Organizational system, Closed, AI, Labeling system, Open.


Before this article becomes a purely descriptive design text I would like to propose a game.

Here you have 9 cards that may or may not be related to each other. All you have to do is categorize them and give a title to each of the groups you have created. If you want, you can also explain why you have decided to relate them in this way. Here we go! Remember, you can make as many groupings as you need.

Open card sorting

Now let’s go with the same example but you would only have to group them in the following categories.

Closed card sorting

How did you like it? Complicated? Easy? These are simple examples of the two forms of card sorting you can design to create or improve the IA of your product.

We will come back to them later to explain them in detail, now we will focus on understanding more deeply what card sorting is, what are its advantages and disadvantages and how we can implement it in our organization.

Card sorting is a technique that allows the investigation of how product group information users relate concepts. It also helps to understand how users perceive the labels used on a product.

The main objective is to know your users’ mental model to optimize your product’s organization and labeling system. Thus achieving improvements in the user’s browsing and information search experience.

There are three questions that this technique can answer:

  • How do people think about categories and concepts?
  • How do they describe them?
  • What kind of information belongs to each category

As Donna Spencer rightly says “Card sorting is not understood as a collaborative method of creating navigation, but as a tool that helps us understand the people we design for.”

Keeping in mind the examples we started the article with, there are two forms of card sorting: open card sorting and closed card sorting.

When we talk about open card sorting, the participants have to arrange the cards according to their relationshipwitho with each other and briefly describe the groups created. It is perfect in the early stages of exploration when you still don’t have a very solid idea about your architecture.

As we have seen in the first example some of you might have done this:

Unlike open card sorting, closed card sorting has the categories of the groups already closed. The participants only have to organize the cards into these categories. Once you have a more or less solid idea of what your first level of navigation might be, closed card sorting will help you validate it. In the example above an answer might have been this.

What comes after execution?

What do we have to do next?

Of course, we can’t leave without paying attention to the analysis of the results.

There are several ways to perform data analysis according to Groups, the location of the charts, or the given labels.

In the case of performing the technique remotely and using specific tools such as Optimal workshop, the result of your card sorting will be a Dendrogram.

  • Examine the groups created by the participants and perform an in-depth analysis of them thanks to a similarity matrix.
  • Where a card is placed can give you an idea of what the participants think about the meanings of the cards.
  • Pay attention to how the groups have been labeled. Similarity and differentiation in the terminology used, or how formal the language used is. When participants use many different labels it can give you information about how they use language.

In addition, we can analyze the results thanks to dendrograms. Dendrograms are graphs based on statistical calculations that represent the closeness of the tested terms to the users. This graph generates logically shaped groups of terms that could be part of a section of your navigation.

This graph is from a Teacup Lab study with real users and data.

Each of these analyses will give you valuable information. Don’t let laziness get the better of you.

The perfect time for card sorting

As card sorting is an exploration and validation technique, it can be used at different points in the product lifecycle; research, definition, and generation.

Although it is mainly used in the research phase, card sorting can be carried out in different phases to achieve objectives such as planning and structuring navigation or creating classification schemes, among others.

As you all know, the ideal is to do previous research to guide you when designing a card sorting. In this way, you will be able to use both closed and open card sorting.

Here we propose a way, not the only one, to be able to use both forms of this technique together.

and now...?

Would you say that card sorting is a technique that is used in isolation?

The answer is no.

Due to its quantitative nature, this technique is perfect to be performed at the same time or consecutively with other quantitative and qualitative techniques.

If card sorting is moderate, a good way to get more content-related information is to ask the participants. Interviewing helps to understand the content and generate context by asking participants to explain and describe why they grouped it.

In addition to interviews, questionnaires help to understand how the web is used, what users need in the future. Asking about confidence in their answers is a good way to cross-check the answers given during the card sorting run. Questionnaires are a good complementary technique when card sorting is done remotely and not moderated.

If your final objective is to validate the architecture, do not hesitate to use Tree testing. You will check if the structure you propose with the closed card sorting allows you to easily find the contents that users are looking for.

This graph is from a Teacup Lab study with real users and data.


Card sorting

Card Sorting is a user research technique, mainly quantitative, that helps us to understand the mental models of users. This will help to design or improve the information architecture, workflow, menu structures, and navigation paths of a website.

Information architecture

The information architecture has two specific objectives: The identification and definition of the content and functionality of the product. In addition to understanding the underlying information, organization, structure and nomenclature that defines the relationship between functionality and content.

Organizational system

System for understanding labels, navigation menus, trees and content maps.

Labeling system

Terminology validation. Users recognize and understand the tags used to name content.

Tree testing

Quantitative and qualitative method that allows to evaluate the information architecture thanks to several tasks. It allows to check if the structure to be evaluated is intuitive and allows to easily find the contents as well as to know if the labels are intelligible and correctly related to the contents.


Clasificación y palabras clave

Cuantitativo, Cualitativo, Dificultad-baja, Presencial, Usuarios, Económica, Remoto.

Palabras clave

Card sorting, Dendrograma, Sistema de organización, Cerrado, AI, Sistema de etiquetado, Abierto.

Clasificación y palabras clave

Cuantitativo, Cualitativo, Dificultad-baja, Presencial, Usuarios, Económica, Remoto.

Palabras clave

Card sorting, Dendrograma, Sistema de organización, Cerrado, AI, Sistema de etiquetado, Abierto.


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