How to use Card Sorting to Improve Service Design

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

Card sorting is one of the methods used to design and organise the information used by the consumer in the final product or service. It aims to eliminate any biases or to mislead organising for the information by letting a group of participants organise the information used on the service through printed or digital cards. Each card represents one of the elements used on the service’s information design, such as tags or labels, and the participants work individually or in group discussions to organise the elements based on the relation between them. The card sorting can use printed cards, sticky notes, and online card-sorting tools. We can also use it during the design research to analyse data, check What is Thematic Analysis? And How to Apply in Design Thinking.

The card sorting is closely related to the information architecture. While the main elements of the information architecture are navigation, search, classification, and labelling, card sorting is the tool that can be used to ensure user-friendly classification and labelling 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 UX designers use card sorting to organize their information.

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Why Should We Use Card Sorting in Service Design?

When it comes to organizing the information that should be visible for the consumer, we face several challenges, including but not limited to biased decisions, building reflective and easy to understand information structures. The card sorting can help to overcome most of these challenges as it can help to achieve the below advantages:

  • The card sorting involves that consumers themselves rather than the developing team. The representative sample of the consumers organizes the data based on their demographic information, persona characteristics and understanding of the data provided. This practice 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 get an agreed organisation for the information
  • The card sorting is flexible. It can be done through group discussion, individually, in a live meeting or through online tools.

What are the Types of Card Sorting?

There are two types of card sorting; 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 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
Open Card sorting
In the open card sorting, categories are generated from the similarity between elements
  • Closed Card Sort -The facilitator presents the categories 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, which may not be representative categories comparing with the open card sort type.
Close Card Sorting
The close card sorting starts with predefined categories.

In terms of the attendees, the card sorting is organised 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 the supervision of the session facilitator
  • Group session where participants share their thoughts and ideas loudly and collaborate 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. The video below shows how to use the Card Sorting tool.

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
card sorting
Preparing for the service design card sorting session.

During the Card Sorting Session

During the session, the facilitator introduces the service design project and the information that needs to be organized. Each card should include one element or idea. 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, the facilitator needs to define the different categories that will be used to organise the elements.

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

The colour cards can be used to organize the elements into groups. In the open card sorting, the participants can write the related elements in similar colour cards and give each category of elements. If the categories are too large, the facilitator asks the participants to group some categories. 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.

Categories in card sorting
Categorising information based on its relation in card sorting.

After the Card Sorting Session

Before the end of the session, the facilitator takes a photo of the sorted information to analyse it after the session as below:

  • Understand which cards appear together
  • Understand which cards are shared in the same category
  • Use the participants’ comments as part of the qualitative information
    Once the data are analysed, the facilitator organises it in a spear sheet document and share it with the design team to use in the prototype for the service design.

Two of the common questions about the card sorting are highlighted below:

How to analyse the card sort?

There are several ways to analyse card sorting. The most direct method calculates the percentage of agreement in allocating each card to a specific group. Then, you can determine the allocation of each card based on the highest percentage. In website navigation links, the groups can represent the navigation links, and the cards refer to the content of each link. In this example, you can use the percentages of cards allocation to make site content accessible from multiple links in the website (internal links). So, users can access that data from different locations.

How many participants are needed for the card sorting session?

The number of card sorting varies based on the type of the project and the choice between online and face-to-face card sorting sessions. Based on previous studies, a group of 15-20 members can be sufficient for accurate results.

Online Card Sorting Tools

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

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

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

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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