Card sorting: participatory design at the service of users

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A co-design activity for the organization of contents that makes listening a concrete approach with tangible results.


In TSW – The Sixth, we have always taken care of the experience that our customers’ customers live. But what is an experience made of? Of a multitude of interactions which, in a physical or digital context, can generate a more or less pleasant experience.

The concepts of searchability and findability of information and content have a very important weight in this context: are people who come into contact with a brand’s products and services welcomed and guided by clear and easy-to-understand content? Whether it’s a company site, an app, a management system or a physical place, are we making navigation intuitive, stress-free and without excessive cognitive effort? Achieving these results – and therefore designing quality experiences, beautiful to live in their simplicity – is the goal we pursue in our daily activities when we combine SEO skills (according to an approach always oriented towards hospitality that we wrote about here) and user experience in the creation of welcoming environments, capable of taking the user by the hand and accompanying him in navigation on a human scale, because it is designed together with him.

In this article, specifically, we see how the card sorting activity can bring value to the design of an information architecture that responds to the real needs of the people to whom it is dedicated.

Card sorting

What is card sorting?

Card sorting is a technique that is part of participatory design, which allows us to understand how to catalog and organize the contents of a space and thus create an efficient, simple and understandable information architecture. All this is possible by involving the people who will live that experience in designing that space based on their mind maps.

Card sorting: how does it work?

The first phase of a card sorting is certainly the preparation of the material to be organised.
The contents will each be reported on a specific card precisely because the aim will be to ask the participants to organize them according to the most suitable criterion for that specific person.

At this point it will be necessary to involve the right people. The fundamental aspect that the participants must possess is that they are real (present or future) users of the space we are going to organize. In short, people who respond to the description of potential customers or users of that space.

A UX designer acting as moderator will ask selected people to categorize the items written on the cards; the participants will have to reorder them according to their mental schemes, commenting and describing aloud (think aloud) the reasons for the different choices, so as to allow the moderator to understand the reasoning that underlies his experience.

Card sorting

Types of card sorting

This type of qualitative research can adapt to different contexts and needs. For this there are several types based on different elements:

  • Method of administration: card sorting can be carried out in person or remotely.
  • Moderation: a card sorting may or may not include the presence of the facilitator. The unmoderated one is more frequent when the activity is carried out remotely.
  • Dynamics between participants: in the individual card sorting each participant carries out the activity alone (supported by the moderator), instead in the collaborative one each session is performed by a group of 2-3 people and in this case the value also lies in the discussion is generated among the participants.
  • Constraints on items: card sorting can be opened, a version in which people are free to change the number of cards and the wording of the labels, both for content and for categories; the alternative is the closed card sorting, in which the moderator already provides the written cards and the categories, while the participant can decide what to insert in each group. There is also the hybrid version, in which some cards will be fixed, while others can be changed.
  • Analysis of the results: the classic card sorting requires each participant (or group of participants) to classify the cards from scratch, for this reason the different architectures produced will be compared with each other, highlighting common points and differences. The simplified card sorting, also called “Delphi card sorting”, instead requires the participant to work on an already given content organization. The first participant will be based on the existing architecture, the second on the one reworked by the first and so on. This variant is also called additive card sorting and provides a near-final version of the architecture. For this reason the processing phase is longer (one user at a time) but the analysis phase is a little shorter.

Card sorting: some examples

These features can be combined with each other depending on the needs, context and execution times.

We basically prefer the face-to-face and moderated version because it has the added value of being able to confront each other in person, also bringing out elements that could be lost remotely.

We vary the other types more often, depending on the needs, for example we have used:

Designing with people

Each card sorting experience conducted for our customers together with their customers is a window wide open on a truth too often ignored: what people really experience in everyday life (with all that follows with respect to the perception of a brand, an immense value ). It is only in this way, by bringing the end users on board the design, in each of its phases, that it is possible to create not only information architectures but entire experiences of value, for the people who will live them and the companies that will know how to design them according to this new (but all altogether as old as the world) paradigm.

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13 February 2023 Elena Toniolo

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TAG: UX and UI The Sixth W approach