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Introduction to Card Sorting: A Technique for Organizing and Categorizing Items

How do you organize your music library? By genre? Alphabetically? Remember High Fidelity (2000)? John Cusack’s character organized his collection autobiographically. Cusack plays the role of Rob Gordon, a record store owner and compulsive list maker. In the scene below, Rob’s friend Dick comes over to Rob’s apartment while he is in the midst of organizing his personal record collection.

Their dialogue goes something like this (for full effect, I encourage you to watch the video, but be warned, it may contain language that is not work appropriate. Wait, why are you watching this at work, anyway?):

Dick: I guess it looks as if you're reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?
Rob: No...
Dick: Not alphabetical...
Rob: Nope.
Dick: What?
Rob: Autobiographical...If I want to find the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.
Dick: That sounds...
Rob: Comforting.

Organizing and classifying things is actually a pretty common problem. Music shops, bookstores, and grocery stores all face this problem. Then there are websites. Be it an intranet or a blog, someone has to make a decision about how to organize all that content.

When faced with a classification problem, where should you begin?  

What is Card sorting?

The goal of card sorting is to understand how others would classify and organize your information. 

Let’s keep going with this music collection idea. Imagine iTunes did not exist and you want to organize your music collection so that your family and friends can easily find that cool new song they’re looking for. To do a card sort, you would get some index cards. Then, on each one, write the album and artist name. Finally, you hand the index cards to your daughter and ask her to organize them. You do this with your friend, your son, and your mom (don’t worry, she loves Danzig!). 

The result? You have just discovered how your family and friends (your users) would organize your collection. After watching a couple of people sort the index cards, you probably saw some patterns emerge. When it’s all said and done, the information you gained from the card sort will help you organize your collection in a way that is optimized with your friend and family in mind. 

Why Do A Card Sort

  • it’s inexpensive
  • it opens your eyes to your users’ mental models
  • it helps you establish patterns in the organization
  • it provides research and evidence for your solution  
  • it’s fun
  • it gets user feedback early in the process
  • it helps you do your job better
  • it increases findability
  • it makes things easier to use 

How To


1. Make the Cards

Prepare 25 - 50 index cards (or sticky notes) with information (content) or features (functionality) that can be found on your web site. Now, shuffle the cards. Note: We prefer index cards because they are easy to shuffle and reuse.

Pro Tip - When labeling the cards, be succinct but provide enough information so that a participant can understand what it is. 

Pro Tip - If your handwriting isn’t very legible, try using business card templates from an office supply store.

Pro Tip - Create two sets of cards. When you complete the first cards sort, you’ll need to record the results before you can shuffle the cards and do another card sort. If you have two decks, you can hand off the cards to someone else who will record the results and you can begin the next sort with the second deck.

Example cards for card sort of music web site.

 Example results might be:

- No one understood the term “down tempo electronic.” Consider a more generic group title like “techno” or simple “electronic”

- Most users grouped 2Pac,  Ludacris, and Biggie Smalls into a group called “Rap”

- Several users created a subgroup to “Rap” called “Dirty South” that included Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, Young Jeezy, and T.I.

Pro tip - The goal of the exercise is NOT to have users tell you what the final organization should be. The goal is to understand their thought process and then create an organizational system that will make sense to them.  


In High Fidelity, John Cusack was performing a card sort. Each of his albums is similar to a index card. He came up with an organization scheme that would make it extremely difficult for anyone else to find a particular album. Can you imagine trying to find “Landslide?”  The album was released by Fleetwood Mac in 1975, but Cusack’s character had it in the 1983 pile because that is when he bought it. 

When conducting a card sort, you will encounter users that organize information in unexpected ways, like Cusack’s autobiographical approach. What you need to consider is the big picture and trends across all participants. The goal is to organize the information in a way that will best support all users.  If you find that there are too few similarities between participants, consider expanding your participant group until trends emerge. 

For more on card sorting, read Donna Spencer’s Boxes and Arrows article.

For more on analyzing results, read the Boxes & Arrows article by Joe Lamantia on analyzing card sort results that provides detailed instructions for analysis