How to use Card Sorting to Improve Service Design

Service design follows the same design thinking process models that we highlighted in previous articles. However, when it comes to the prototyping stage, there should be a coherent structure for the information that will be provided to the consumers during their journey in the product or service. Organizing the information can be represented in the tagging system in a grocery store, the content provided on a website, or organizing the gates in the airport terminals. One of the effective methods that help us to organize the information based on the consumers’ understanding is the card sorting method.

The card sorting is one of the methods used to design and organize the information that will be used by the consumer in the final product or service. It aims to eliminate any biases or misleading organizing for the information through letting a group of participants organizes the information that will be used on the service through the usage of printed or digital cards. Each card represents one of the elements that will be used on the information design of the service such as tags or labels, and the participants work individually or in group discussion to organize the elements based on the relation between them. The card sorting can use printed cards, sticky notes, and online card-sorting tools.

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The card sorting is closely related to the information architecture. While the main elements of the information architecture are the navigation, search, classification, and labeling. The card sorting is the tool that can be used to ensure user-friendly classification and leveling for the information in the service. it can be applied in different fields including product design, service design, and user experience. According to the UPA Annual Salary Survey, around 52% of the UX designers are using the card sorting to organize their information.

Why Should We Use Card Sorting in Service Design?

When it comes to organizing the information that should be visible for the consumer, we are faced with a number of challenges including but not limited to biased decisions, building reflective and easy to understand information structure. The card sorting can help overcoming most of these challenges as it can help achieving the below advantages:

– The card sorting involves that consumers themselves rather than the developing team. The representative sample of the consumers organize the data based on their demographic information, persona characteristics and understanding to the data provided. This helps to build a tailored service design for the market segment and directly address their needs.

– The card sorting is a quick tool to reach a user-friendly taxonomy for the information as the practice takes around 20 – 60 minutes to reach an agreed organization for the information

– The card sorting is flexible, it can be done through group discussion, individually, in a live meeting or through online tools.

Types of Card Sorting

The card sorting types can be classified into two main types; the open card sort and the card close sort as following:

– Open Card Sort – The participants organize the information given to them into categories that they create from scratch. This type can help us to build a taxonomy that is very common among the consumers as they have chosen the categories themselves. However, this model can make the design team lose control over the categories that will be presented in the final product as it is an open mode

– Closed Card Sort -The facilitator presents the categories that will be used to organize the information elements. The participants organize the data under its related categories. While this type is more controllable, it defines the categories for the participants. These categories are developed by the design team rather than the consumer themselves, which may not be representative categories comparing with the open card sort type.

service design
Card sorting using paper cards. (Source:

In terms of the attendees, the card sorting is organized as following:

– Personal session with the facilitator, as the participants meet with the facilitator and do the sorting individually

– Group session where each one of the attendees does the card sorting individually with supervision of the session facilitator

– Group session where participants share loudly their thoughts and ideas and collaborate together in sorting the data

– Online sorting through card sorting websites where participants sort the cards remotely

Steps for Card Sorting for Service Design

In order to conduct a successful card sorting sessions, we should consider three phases; before the session, during the session, and after the session.

Before the Card Sorting Session

Before the start of the session, the facilitator needs to prepare it based on the following:

Plan the card sorting type that will be used during the session. This will reflect on the tools that will be used, it can be either printed cards, sticky notes, and pens, or computer to access the online card sorting tools

Invite the participants who will contribute in the session, it should a representative sample based on the marketing research conduct in collaboration of the service design process

Define the categories that will be presented to the participants. If the session is based on open card sort, the definition of the categories should be open for the participants to decide.

Make sure to limit the number of information items to increase the efficiency of the session. Normally, the expected items can be range between 30-100 items.
Prepare a meeting room where the participants need to meet for around 60 minutes to conduct the card sorting

During the Card Sorting Session

During the session, the facilitator starts with introducing the service design project and the information that needs to be organized during the session. Each element should be added into one of the cards. if the session is based on individual work, there should be copies of the cards for all the attendees. Also, if the session is based on a closed card sorting, then the facilitator need to define the different categories that will be used to organize the elements.

card sorting
During the service design card sorting session.

Then, the participants start to sort the information they have based on the relation between them. If the session is based on group discussion, then the participants speak loudly to share their ideas when they add or remove items from each group.

The color cards can be used to organize the elements into groups. In the open card sorting, the participants can write the related elements in similar color cards and give a name for the each category of elements. If the categories are too large, the facilitator asks the participants to group some categories together. In some cases, the facilitator can start work open card sorting to define the name of the categories based on the participants’ point of view, and then use these categories in a closed card sorting.

After the Card Sorting Session

Before the end of the session, the facilitator takes a photo for the sorted information in order to analyze it after the session as following:

– Understand which cards appear together

– Understand which cards are shared in the same categorie

– Use the participants’ comments as part of the qualitative information

Once the data are analyzed, the facilitator organizes it in a spear sheet document and share it with the design team to use in the prototype for the service design.

card sorting tools
Online card sorting tools. (Source: Optimal Workshop)

Online Card Sorting Tools

In addition to the physical cards, the online card sorting tools can help access to more participants especially if they live in a different place or country. Below are examples of the online card sorting tools:
User Zoom Card Sorting
Optimal Workshop

One of the challenges that face designers in the service design projects is to organize the information in a way that is usable and easy to identify for the consumers. The card sorting is one of the efficient tools that can achieve through participating a consumer sample to sort the information based on their demographic information. This helps to build targeted solutions that directly focus on the consumers’ needs and improve that they access the information used in the service design project. The card sorting has proven efficiency because it doesn’t take long time and effort. All the design team needs to do is to invite the participants to attend the physical session or do the card sorting online.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

Academic lecturer, researchers, and author. I have eight years of academic teaching experience for undergraduate and postgraduate modules, including digital design, interactive design, design thinking, and design process. My research interest involves design theory and practice including design process and the role of design in healthcare technology. I'm the inventor of the Adherence Canvas, an evidence-based design tool to improve patient adherence to health tech. Additionally, I am a published author in industry books in the fields of design and technology. I am the founder of I am a fellow and mentor for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), an accredited lecturer from the British Charter Institute of IT (BSC), and an Adobe Education Leader. My industry experience involves 15 years of working with international clients.

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