There are three different card sort methods to choose from — open, closed, or hybrid. This article tells you how they differ, what they are each used for, and what results you see for each of them.
An open card sort
In an open card sort, participants create and label their own categories by dragging cards into groups that make the most sense to them. An open card sort is helpful when you’re starting to design a new website or starting to improve one you already have.
Conduct an open card sort to:
find out how people understand and conceptualize your information
find out where people expect to find information when they land on your website
generate ideas for how to structure and label your website information
establish if your different user groups think in different ways about your information.
Results you will see for an open card sort
As well as the participants, cards, and categories tables, your open card sorting results will include these visualizations:
When your participants first enter your open card sort, they'll see this:
They'll then move the cards into groups that make sense to them, and label the groups:
A closed card sort
In a closed sort, you create pre-defined categories, and participants will sort the cards into those categories. Participants must use the categories you define and are unable to create their own categories.
Conduct a closed card sort to:
find out if people agree on where your information is best placed within existing categories
pinpoint unclear or misleading category labels based on mixed results and fix them
reduce the number of categories you have based on which categories are ignored the most.
A closed card sort is also good for getting people to rank and prioritize items and actions, for example, from Important to Unimportant, or Use Always to Use Never. You can also use closed card sorting to test if your category labels make sense to people, and which items they sort into which categories.
Closed card sorting can't be used to validate a new structure, or to test if people can find information in your structure. Use tree testing for that.
Results you will see for a closed card sort
As well as the participants, cards, and categories tables, your closed card sorting results will include these visualizations:
Popular placements matrix
When participants first enter your closed card sort, they'll see this:
They'll then sort the cards into the pre-defined categories that make sense to them. We'd suggest also having an "I'm not sure" category so participants can pop any they're not sure about in there.
A hybrid card sort
A hybrid cart sort is a mix of open and closed card sorts. You create pre-defined categories (closed) and also allow participants to create and label their own (open).
Running a hybrid card sort can enable you to get user input into potential category labels for your website, and to see if pre-defined labels make sense to people.
Hybrid card sorting is especially useful if:
you have your information architecture partially complete and are interested in seeing how participants label and sort the rest of your structure
you think that allowing participants to create their own categories will mean less people abandon the study.
Not sure when to run a hybrid card sort instead of an open or closed?
When to use hybrid card sorting instead of open
When you set much fewer categories than people need to sort all the cards, your hybrid card sort will lean towards open. This means people will be less likely to use your categories and more likely to create new categories to complete the card sort.
Run a hybrid card sort like this if you:
want to generate ideas for grouping your information and want to give people a category pattern to take inspiration from
see high agreement on some categories after an open card sort, but need clarity on some less certain groupings.
When to use hybrid card sorting instead of closed
When you set enough categories for people to sort all the cards into, your hybrid category will lean towards closed. This means people will be more likely to sort the cards into your categories only, and less likely to create new categories.
Run a hybrid card sort like this if you:
are happy with the groupings and labels you have, but want people to have the option to suggest their own just in case
want to find out if participants come up with category labels that are better than the ones you have
want to avoid the risk of people ‘making do’ with categories they may not wholly agree with.
Results you will see for a hybrid card sort
You'll see the same results for a hybrid card sort as you would for an open card sort.
When participants first land on your study, they'll see the pre-defined categories with instructions that they can also create their own:
They'll then sort cards into the pre-defined categories, or create and label their own: