From discontent to content

In the glamorous and dynamic world of website design, creating user-friendly and intuitive navigation is paramount. A well-organized website structure not only enhances user experience but also drives engagement and buy-in.

Enter card sorting exercises! – an invaluable technique that allows content-owners to gain insights into users’ mental models, leading to more efficient navigation and content organization.

Understanding Card Sorting

Card sorting is a user experience research method that involves sorting content items into categories to reveal patterns in how users think about information. It’s like peering into users’ minds, understanding how they group and label information naturally. By conducting card sorting exercises, you can make informed decisions about website structure.

Types of Card Sorting

  1. Open Card Sorting: In open card sorting, participants categorize content items into groups they create and label. This method is excellent for generating fresh insights into how users naturally group information.
  2. Closed Card Sorting: Closed card sorting involves participants sorting content items into predefined categories provided by the designer. This approach helps validate existing navigation structures and assess the clarity of labels.
  3. Hybrid Card Sorting: A combination of open and closed card sorting, hybrid card sorting offers a comprehensive view. Participants both create categories and sort items into existing ones, offering a balance between creativity and validation.

Benefits of Card Sorting Exercises

  1. User-Centred Design: Card sorting puts users at the centre of the design process, ensuring that the website’s structure aligns with their mental models and expectations.
  2. Improved Navigation: By understanding how users naturally group and categorize information, designers can create intuitive navigation menus that guide users seamlessly through the website.
  3. Label Clarity: Card sorting uncovers the language users prefer when labeling categories and items. This makes content more understandable.
  4. Reduced Cognitive Load: An organized website reduces cognitive load, making it easier for users to find what they need, boosting satisfaction and engagement. (We talked about cognitive load before.)
  5. Evidence-Driven Decision Making: Card sorting provides valuable data and insights that guide design decisions, minimizing guesswork and optimizing user experience. And best of all, most card sorting apps do the analysis for you!

Conducting a Card Sorting Exercise

  1. Define Goals: Identify the specific research questions you want to answer. (E.g., How do we reorganize our navigation menu?)
  2. Select Participants: You are supposed to choose a diverse group but you can use your department, or students. Aim for at least 15-20 participants for meaningful results.
  3. Prepare Content Cards: Create digital cards representing each content item on your website.
  4. Choose a Method: Decide on open, closed, or hybrid card sorting based on your goals and resources.
  5. Facilitate the Exercise: Guide participants through the sorting process, encouraging them to think aloud. Collect qualitative insights on their reasoning. Most apps and online car sorting tools will do this for you.
  6. Analyze Results: Look for patterns in how participants group items and label categories. Identify areas of consensus and divergence.
  7. Refine Information Architecture: Use the insights gathered to refine your website’s information architecture, navigation labels, and menu structure.


There are a number of tools out there which allow free use of much of their card sorting functionality. Here are five top card sorting tools you can find online.

Optimal Workshop: Offering a free plan, this user-friendly tool includes basic card sorting and tree testing features.

Miro: This versatile collaborative online whiteboard platform can be used for card sorting.

Userbit: The free version of this tool is easy to use and provides in-depth analysis of your responses.

Maze: According to Maze, its “card sorting feature uncovers your users’ mental models with tailored, automated, and visual analytics that help you identify and share trends in no time.”

kardSort: kardSort offers an extremely easy to navigate (and free!) system.