Card Sort

Card sort is a tool that can be used to explore how participants group items into categories and relate concepts to one another.  Through this process, card sorting can reveal important information regarding user preferences, biases, etc.

Card sort provides facilitators with a tool that invites participatory action from participants in generating useful information regarding the way they perceive proposed strategies deriving from a systemic design exercise.

When to use it?
Frame: Card sorting gives participants an opportunity to categorize ideas that reveals preferences regarding how elements inter-relate together.  As such it can lead to important re-framing of an issue and build shared understanding amongst participants.

How to do it?

  1. Show the participant the set of cards. Explain that you are asking for help to natural categories of information are and what those categories should be called.

  2. Ask the participant to talk out loud while working. You want to understand the participant's thoughts, rationale, and frustrations.

  3. Let the participant work. Minimize interruptions but encourage the participant to think aloud. Allow the participant to:
    a. Add cards as new ideas emerge
    b. Put cards aside to indicate topics the participant is not interested in (document why).

  4. Ask the participant to name each category.

Card Sort is a flexible tool that is best used with a group of diverse participants that bring a variety of user perspectives to the exercise. In doing so, the exercise can reveal a wide range of opinion/perspective regarding the relationships of particular issues/themes.

Card sort can take a variety of different lengths depending on the subject matter being explored.  This length can vary from a ½ hour to half a day depending on the particular issue.

Pros and Cons

  • Card sorting will help you understand your users’ expectations and understanding of your topics.
  • For interaction design, customer research or research in the social sciences, few investigative techniques are as effective as card sorting in dealing with large numbers of concepts.
  • In face-to-face settings, handling and annotating physical cards is a fairly natural and unintimidating process: observing users engaged in this process can result in many insights for researchers and provide a fertile source of questions and conversations about the problem domain being studied and, of course, users themselves.


  • Depending on the subject matter, finding agreed upon affinities between topic areas may be difficult.


  • Provide the participants with an estimate of how long the card sort will take before beginning the session to help them better gauge the required time and effort.



Image Source: NREPOD Future of Social License to 2042 systems thinking workshop – November 2012

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