The three types of card sort and when you should use each

Not all card sorts are the same. In this article, Jason Stockwell breaks down the differences and the benefits of each card sort type.

By Jason Stockwell, Insights Marketing Manager at People for Research

We’re reaching a stage where people are starting to wonder what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will we go back to an office, will we attend events again, will we be able to make small talk with strangers about the weather, and, of course, will we return to face-to-face research…

And while we know the answers to some of these questions (mainly about how dreary the UK’s forecast can be in November) we, as researchers, have been able to adapt very successfully to a new remote world by taking our jobs home and our research online. One of the user research methodologies that we have encountered more and more since this virus forced us inside is card sorts.

About card sorts

Card sorts are essentially a remote and unmoderated categorisation exercise designed to help with understanding how an audience organises information. An example would be where would you put specific advice sections on a website: you may choose to separate by media type, advice type or stage in which an individual needs the content. These are all options available to you as a researcher or designer, but not a decision that should be made based on your individual beliefs — they should be informed by your audience.

Card sorts remove this bias and allow participants to choose what makes sense to them and what suits their needs and journeys.

However, not all card sorts are the same. Let’s take a look at the three categories — open, closed and hybrid — , what you need to know about the differences and when to use each one of these types of card sorts.

1. The what, why and how of open card sorting

In open card sorts, participants sort cards into categories and label each category themselves. The only prompts participants have are instructions to help guide them during this unmoderated task and the cards.

An example would be colours:

The image above shows colours on the left hand side of the page, and asks the participant to drag-and-drop the options to the right side of the screen while creating categories to organise the colours.

I know what you’re thinking: why would this be an open card sort and not a closed one? The reason is this: you may not want to push your colour biases on participants with a fixed number of categories. For example, people might sort the options according to a light and dark colour category, or sort according to primary and secondary colours, or even include more tertiary colours like teal or magenta. Leaving categories open takes away the bias!

2. When to run closed card sorts

We’ve covered open card sorts, so let’s move to the opposite end of the spectrum. A closed card sort can be described as an unmoderated task where participants have to group cards into categories that have been set up by the researcher.

This gives participants more structure to fit into your framework of ideas and is a perfect way to see if your audience agrees with your assumptions based on how they manage the categories provided.

Beyond this, closed card sorting can help with prioritising product updates and feature requests.

Let’s use the initial example, but with closed categories:

Imagine I am asking participants to tell me how they would organise shades of paint on a website, where we need to think about how new products will fit into pre-existing filters or website areas. By providing the participants with the closed card sort, I’m forcing the users to abide by the pre-existing categories provided — and that works for me in this context.

Closed card sorting is also useful in areas where you are gathering information about simple topics and fairly familiar language.

3. When to use hybrid card sorts

Finally, our third category. With hybrid card sorts, participants are asked to sort cards into categories, but they can use both the categories provided by the researcher or create their own categories during the unmoderated task.

According to our experience, researchers tend to prefer this cart sorting method over open card sorting because it allows them to give a bit more structure to the task while giving the participants a certain level of freedom and the opportunity to showcase their opinion. It also allows the researcher to give the participant an example of what they are looking for without completely guiding them towards (potentially biased) results.

As the name indicates, hybrid card sorts also allow more flexibility than closed cart sorts. You might want to consider the hybrid option if you want to understand whether participants prefer your current categories or if new ones make more sense to them.

Are you considering a card sort? Let me know how you find it! And if you need any help or have questions about this type of task, you can find out more information here.

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