Card sorting is a useful tool to determine how users categorize the information that will appear on a website. The name “card sort” comes from the original exercise, which used index cards with a word or phrase written on one side, and in some cases, a definition or additional information on the reverse side. There are traditionally two types of card sort exercises used: open card sort, and closed card sort.

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Open Card Sort

In an open card sort exercise, participants are given a stack of cards and are asked to group them together as it makes sense to them (no right or wrong answers). After they have grouped the cards, they are asked to name each group of cards.

Closed Card Sort

In a closed card sort exercise, participants are provided group names, and are asked to place each of the cards into one of the pre-established groups. A variation of the closed card sort is a semi-open/closed card sort exercise. In a semi-open/closed card sort, participants begin with a closed card sort, with the exception that they are allowed to make changes to the group names, and may add new groups, rename groups, and remove groups.

The results of a card sort exercise may be used to develop an application or website’s Information Architecture. Many researchers still use index cards, and there are a few good software and web-based card sort applications available. One benefit of using software is that it provides a cluster analysis and other statistics. It is also easier to set up (no worries about losing or arranging index cards), and paperless, thus environmentally friendly. Some popular card sorting software includes: XSort (Mac only) and WebSort (Mac and PC).