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Processes and Productivity

How-to guide for intranet card sorting

Card sorting is the step that generally follows a content audit when building intranet navigation. This guide will help you create an IA structure using terms that match users’ perspectives resulting in a navigation that makes sense to your organization.

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card sorting
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If you have never heard of card sorting, you aren’t alone.

Card sorting is defined as a structured exercise that asks intranet users to sort a list of sample intranet content into logical groupings. It can be done online using software, or offline (in-person).

During the exercise, a user is provided with a list of examples of intranet content. The user then sorts the items on the list into groups of related cards and labels each grouping. When a number of users have completed the exercise, the organizer compares the results to identify patterns and insights as to where similar groupings did and did not occur.

There are two types of card sorting exercises: closed card sorting and open card sorting. In a closed card sort, participants are provided with the categories to sort the cards. In an open card sort, there are no predetermined categories and participants are given cards and asked to sort them in a way that makes sense to them.

Because open card sorting is more common and useful in the early stages of building an intranet’s IA, we only cover open card sorting here.

How can card sorting help your intranet?

Learn about card sorting and more in our guide to intranet information architecture.

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Intranet Information Architecture White Paper, cover

Why is card sorting important?

Card sorting helps build IA structure using terms and groupings that match users’ perspectives resulting in a simplified navigation.

Many poorly designed intranets are built by one person or a small group who create the navigation around their own personal perspectives. This can lead to sites that are self-centered, overly prescriptive, or mechanical.

The site ends up matching how the designer thinks everyone else should see the content, rather than how users actually understand the content. It helps intranet teams look beyond their own blinders and build an IA employees are more likely to adopt.

How intranet card sorting is special

Card sorting is frequently used in the design of public facing websites — the ones we can search for and find through Google, Yahoo!, etc. — as well as for intranets. But intranet card sorting carries a few specific characteristics and benefits that are different from card sorting for marketing-focused sites.

For starters, the information on an intranet is uniquely focused on a company, and employees need the information to succeed in their daily work. In a company, if an employee can’t find what they need, they will look elsewhere.

And unlike card sorting for public websites, the participants in an intranet card sorting exercise are your users and will return to the site day after day (hopefully). The participants could end up being stakeholders, super users, or intranet champions.

Card sorting plays a dual role, both as a design and engagement tool. By involving users in intranet development you achieve stronger sustained adoption. Additionally, any employees who participate in it are less likely to complain about the resulting IA.

When to use card sorting

Card sorting is an early stage tool used to create a navigation, rather than to validate the effectiveness of your proposed structures. It can result in a draft high-level site navigation, which task testing can then revise and refine further. Here are the best opportunities to use it:

New site, redesign, or section update: People typically use card sorting when a new site will be built or redesigned. It can also play a critical role in updating a specific section of content rather than a whole site.

Following a content audit: The content audit provides a snapshot of all your potential intranet material. From the content listed in this snapshot, you can select relevant content for card sorting.

Before task testing: Task testing is an evaluation/validation step that helps refine your information architecture. But first, you must complete a round of user-centered exercises such as card sorting to come up with a draft design.

Before visual design (sometimes): For many sites, card sorting (and task testing) come before the visual design stage (wireframing, sizing and selecting page elements, selecting colors, etc.). With out-of-the-box social intranet software, this is less relevant. In this case, the site navigation becomes the largest effort of your intranet site customization and can take place before, during, or after visual design.

Without a live site: Card sorting, task testing, and creating your information architecture activities can occur without having a live site. As long as you document the results in a spreadsheet, you can apply the information architecture later.

Online or offline?

Traditionally, card sorting was completed in a room where participants physically stacked index cards. Today, web-based tools offer a flexible online alternative. Our favorite tool is OptimalSort, which offers easy setup and rather extensive analysis and data visualization features.

Benefits of online card sorting

  • Easily involve geographically dispersed audience
  • Reach more people
  • Faster for participants
  • Timing more flexible for participants
  • Analysis tools built-in
  • Exportable data

Benefits of offline card sorting

  • Option of group-based card sorting
  • Rich contextual discussions (for group-based)
  • Opportunity for interviews & surveys
  • Greater participant commitment, higher level of engagement

While online card sorting software does provide useful analysis and visualization results, you’ll still need to analyze the results.

A step-by-step guide to intranet card sorting

STEP 1: Identify participants

Card sorting aims to capture employees’ perspectives on how different pieces of information fit together, but not all employees have the exact same perspective. The way people see and use a specific piece of content may vary based on their job levels, departments, locations, etc. It is therefore important to involve employees who span the spectrum on various criteria.

Try to involve employees from throughout the hierarchy, from admins up to executives, as well as people from every department and location. Not only does this help you capture a full array of perspectives, but it also supports your user engagement efforts. Renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen wrote a blog post which provides some scientific insights into how many users to test in card sorting.

STEP 2: Review content audit & select topics for cards

We presume that you have already completed a full content audit that provides you with a rich list of content to select your examples.

To select topics for cards, begin by first scanning your full content audit. You’ll want a total of 50 to 60 cards, each with an individual piece of content/topic.

Building a new intranet is a tremendous opportunity to learn about your organization. You may discover that people in different locations and roles use very different information than you use. But you don’t want to learn this lesson by picking cards that are foreign to some of your testers.

If people see cards they don’t understand, they will have trouble completing the exercise and may feel the intranet is not relevant to their work. To address this issue you can complete a comprehensive content audit and then select the content you think is used across the entire company.

Note that if your content audit revealed large gaps in your existing material or you have big dreams about new content for the new intranet, it is okay to include future content. You also may find it easy to use a spreadsheet to list and track the topics for the card sort.

STEP 3: Analyze topics for a consistent level of granularity

Will you include only individual pages and files, such as “Travel Expense Form,” or will you move up to a broader section/folder level of content, such as “Travel forms”? These two examples offer different levels of granularity. One is a specific piece of content while the other is a section that contains specific pieces of content.

Without a consistent level of content granularity, you may confuse users and skew results. Ask “Can this card fit as a topic underneath any other card?” If the answer is yes, you may need to replace broader content with more specific content (or vice versa).

The goal of a card sort is to surface users’ mental models and assumptions about content. So try to avoid listing manuals, guides, etc. or similar terms that pre-suppose content groupings that don’t make sense to users, and potentially skew results.

STEP 4: Write brief card descriptions (optional)

Once you’ve got a list of 50-60 cards, type up a brief description for each. A description should be a very brief at-a-glance statement that clarifies a card’s meaning. You don’t want to over-explain a term and provide words that will heavily influence how users sort the cards.


“Travel expense form” | Submit to request funds prior to a business trip

“Company dictionary” | Lists common terms & acronyms with explanations

STEP 5: Create & test online card sort

Once you’ve created your list of cards along with brief descriptions, log in to your selected online card sorting tool and enter your cards into a new card sort. After saving your new card sort online, run a few tests to make sure it is working properly and that the cards and descriptions display correctly.

STEP 6: Invite participants

Once you are satisfied with the card sort and have fully tested it, select a closing date and set the card sort to go live.

Craft an email to all participants with a link to the card sort. This instructional email should include:

  • Introduction to the intranet project
  • Explanation of the important role employees will play in crafting the structure of the new intranet
  • A link to the card sort itself
  • The expected amount of time required to complete the card sort
  • The deadline by which the card sort must be completed
  • Who to contact with questions

STEP 7: Close card sort & analyze results

You can leave the card sort open from two days to one week. As you begin analyzing the results, look for both general insights and specific ideas for how to craft the top two levels of the new intranet’s navigation.

The card sort exercise addresses two key questions:

  • How do users group sample content?
  • What labels do users write to describe groups of content?

Depending on the tool you are using, it may include features that can help you visualize this information. For example, you can look at a list of phrases (in this case, Categories provided by OptimalSort) your employees used to group information.

Employees may be using similar phrases to describe different content, revealing their different mental models. On the other hand, if the groups with similar phrases have similar content, it shows a high degree of agreement and we can be confident that the phrase is used to describe a certain set of content.

Intranet card sorting

Another example provided in OptimalSort to visualize groupings of content is the Similarity Matrix where the darker the blue in the cluster, the higher the agreement between employees on which cards go together.

Intranet card sorting

For more information on the different analysis tools provided by OptimalSort, you can visit their Card Sorting 101 page.

Not every insight will offer a concrete path forward. The results may highlight unclear trends requiring further exploration in task testing. Or, perhaps you’ll discover that people associate a specific piece of content with two different departments, which may require cross-linking.

For example, employees see “paychecks” as tied equally to “Finance” and “HR.” This may lead you to use task testing to validate a proposed “Time & Pay” section which would house all content and links related to paychecks.

A final word 

Intranet card sorting can be fun, quick, and useful, but becoming an expert can take some time. If you’ve never run a card sort before, take an experimental approach and learn along the way. You could even start with a small card sort around a specific collection of content (like HR material).

Any card sorting is better than none, so even if you stumble through it, the resulting insights and user engagement will be well worth it. Of course, if you are really stuck we offer services to guide you along.