Themed Card Sorts

In my experience, there are two types of card sorts: closed card sorts and open card sorts. In a closed card sort, participants sort ideas/words/phrases into pre-defined categories. In an open card sort, participants sort ideas/words/phrases into categories and then create titles for the categories.

I’ve had many excellent experiences leading open card sorts with clients as a way to define navigation on a website, company values, and even voice and tone guidelines. I’ve also had some frustrating experiences with open card sorts, most notably with a team of high school students on last summer’s Atlas Workshop’s trip. So I was perhaps understandably nervous when it became clear that a card sort would help this year’s Atlas Workshop’s team of students move forward with their project.

Adam (the founder of Atlas Workshops and my co-leader) and I discussed how card sorts have gone on other trips he’s led in the past year. He’s learned a lot from working with various groups of students, and he’s identified how much structure the students need. He mentioned that they usually need a warmup sort before doing the “final” card sort, and they need an idea of what the categories might be.

Enter the themed card sort.


When Adam said that students typically need guidance and structure, it rang a bell for me. Adults like that added structure as well. They often get it from a manager or boss who already has an idea in their heads and tells everyone else “all the navigation items should align with the company standards,” for example. In this case, we are the bosses, and it is up to us to inspire the students and simultaneously guide them.

A little background: the students have spent the last week on the island of Korčula, gathering facts and opinions about the island, its people, and tourism opportunities. Our goal for the afternoon was to help the students take all of the (many) ideas and facts they now know,  and categorize them into groups of unique features. The students would then be able to focus on one unique feature to create a tourism opportunity.

We designed our card sort to follow three basic steps:

  1. Take 5 minutes to write down every idea or fact about Korčula. Use a different index card for each idea. (We found index cards easier to use than sticky notes for this activity.)
  2. Group the cards into categories based on where they take place. The students came up with the places – ocean, beach, marina, inland, restaurants.
  3. Read through each category, make note of what ended up where, then shuffle the cards together and spread them out in a random order.
  4. Group the cards into categories based on who they relate to. The students came up with the categories – families, wealthy singles, adventure-seekers, etc.
  5. Repeat step 3.
  6. The final sort: group the cards into categories based on what makes Korčula unique.

In this way, by the 3rd and final sort, the students had dealt with tricky cards, and had a better idea of how to create groupings. They were also more familiar with the cards themselves, making the sorting easier. However, the biggest difference between this and other card sorts was the addition of themes, which provided a sort of middle-ground guidance, with more structure than an open sort but more flexibility than a closed sort.

I look forward to learning from others who may have tried this or similar techniques, and I intend to use themed sorts in the future.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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