How to perform a card sort

One of the more elaborate techniques of researching information architecture is card sorting, a tool for examining how users group topics. It will help the information architect to figure out what the taxonomy of a website should look like and determine a dominant organization scheme. It also helps with taxonomy or labeling content. Ultimately we do want to know how people are searching for specific content and where they expect it to be.

There are two major methods for card sorting that can be used:

1. Open sort: participants can group cards without any constraints, according to their own classification.
2. Closed sort: participants can group cards according to pre-established groups.

Both methods can be done offline and online. In an offline mode, pages can be represented by index cards that display the title and a brief description of the page. In this method you are one-to-one with the participants, which allows to explain the process and the rules. It will also give you the most feedback and thus great qualitative data.

In an online mode, a software program like optimalsort can be used to do the same, but feedback and guidance options are limited. However, you could set up a GoTo Meeting with screen share to mimick a traditional card sorting exercise.

Card sorts will give both qualitative and quantitive data. You will gain insights in how participants think and perceive certain items and you’ll be able to create a clear taxonomy for a large group of users.

A typical card sorting exercise would take about 3-4 weeks. Allow 1 week for preparation, 1 week for the actual exercise, and 1-2 weeks to analyze and report results. Of course the timeline may vary by the size of the project.

However you want to perform your card sort, it will give great insight into how users approach the content matter on your site.