Brief Description

When to use

Card Sorting is a great method for seeing what's in individuals' heads. It is similar in spirit to Card Collection, but it is used as an exercise with individuals, not with groups, as the focus is on understanding individual mental models. This method is often used in designing information architecture and web site menu/navigation/structure design.

How to use

The participant is given a set of cards with ideas written on one side and a number (used to identify the card) written on the other. The participant is then asked to sort the cards according to the groupings that make the most sense. You can provide the participant with blank cards as well to express ideas that he or she thinks are missing.

After the participant is finished sorting, ask him or her to name each cluster of cards, and to explain why he or she organized them this way. There are two ways of doing this: open card sorting and closed card sorting.

  • In an open card sort, participants create their own names for the categories. This helps reveal not only how they mentally classify the cards, but also what terms they use for the categories. Open sorting is generative; it is typically used to discover patterns in how participants classify, which in turn helps generate ideas for organizing information.
  • In a closed card sort, participants are provided with a predetermined set of category names. They then assign the index cards to these fixed categories. This helps reveal the degree to which the participants agree on which cards belong under each category. Closed sorting is evaluative; it is typically used to judge whether a given set of category names provides an effective way to organize a given collection of content.

Finally, record the clusters using the numbers on the back.

You generally perform card sorts with 3-5 people in order to get a range of individual mental models. The alignment in the results suggests ways to organize the information in a way that would make sense to a broader group of people. The differences in the results suggests different types of people (also called "personas") you may want to account for when organizing your information.

Tips and Lessons Learnt

Examples & Stories

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Who can tell me more?

Simone Staiger (s.staiger [@]

Related Methods / Tools / Practices



card sorting; monitoring and evaluation; brainstorming

Photo or image credits

Josien M. Kapma:

Page Authors

Simone Staiger-Rivas