Card Sort

What is a card sort?

A card sort is a way to organize items into groups and logical divisions. Card sorts are useful in developing navigation, content organization, or menu structure based on real user feedback. Card sorts can be performed when designing a new site or a new section of a site or when redesigning a site.

There are three types of card sorts:

  • Open Card sort
  • Closed Card sort
  • Reverse Card sort / Tree Test

How to prepare for a card sort:

If you are performing card sorts in person, take a stack of index cards and write one topic per card. Remember to be selective on the topics you are asking participants to organize. Be sure to number the cards to keep track of them. If you are performing a closed cart sort, write your pre- de ned categories on index cards as well. Keep a stack of blank cards handy to use during the session.

How to conduct an open card sort:

Ask participants to organize topics into groups that make sense to them. Then ask them to come up with a label/category for each group that they feel accurately describes the content. ask the participant to think out loud as they make decisions.

You can conduct an open card sort when:

  • You want to get ideas for labels for the site
  • You want to see how people understand information

How to conduct a closed card sort:

Ask participants to organize topics into pre-determined categories. Ask the participant to think out loud as they make decisions.

You can conduct a closed card sort when:

  • You want to see how people think information fits within an established structure

  • Validating results of an open card sort

How to conduct a reverse card sort / tree test:

Participants are given tasks and asked to complete them by navigating a collection of cards. Ask the participant to think out loud as they make decisions. Each card contains the names of subcategories related to a category, and the participant should find the card most relevant to the given task starting from the main card with the top-level categories.

A reverse card sort validates the site flow and organization of content and can be helpful in matching the navigation to users’ mental models.

You can conduct a reverse card sort / tree test when:

  • Refactoring is needed due to user feedback
  • A site or section of a site is being redesigned
  • Validating changes to web site navigation

Documenting and interpreting card sort results:

Document the results of each sort with a picture for future analysis. You could also quickly summarize the groupings made by participants using the numbers on the cards. If you used software, no need to worry about this step!

The easiest way to make sense of the data generated from card sorting is to put the data into a spreadsheet to identify patterns — in particular, you will be able to see which cards were grouped together most often and how often cards were grouped into certain categories.

Take comments participants made during the session into consideration as well. The more insights the better!


Card sorting requires a bit of preparation. Preparing the cards takes more than just writing a list of topics on index cards, as you need to be strategic in determining what topics you decide to ask participants to sort.


While card sorts won’t usually provide results that are directly actionable, they do provide quantitative data that can be directly attributed to specific participants. The results do not directly involve input from the facilitator, which removes bias.


Determining the topics for the cards and categories and facilitating the exercise can be done by anyone on the design team. Facilitating the exercise is easy and can be aided by online tools such as Trello.