Design Research 101: DIY Card Sort – A Tool to Capture Unarticulated Needs

PHOTOS BY ALISSA MILLENSON

PHOTOS BY ALISSA MILLENSON

Although a product designer can control how a product looks and is executed, she cannot control the resulting interactions between retailers and customers. Similarly, a service designer can’t control the emotional reactions that result from interacting with a service. These emotional reactions and interactions are the lifeblood of service design, and understanding how people perceive your service is critical to user desirability and business viability.

So how do you get at these unspoken perceptions and latent needs?
A simple card sort is a strategic and creative way to co-create with your user and understand how they perceive the subject at hand. What resonates with them? How do they interpret it? In this post, I’ll walk through an example of a WORD card sort activity. 


Step One: DESIGN AN ACTIVITY – It's hard to express exactly what we feel. Lend a hand, give your participants a framework!

This is an example of a Most Important/Least Important Framework. I want to learn how to design a service concept to meet the users' needs, so I created a framework to help the participant in prioritizing them. I've placed the card deck (we'll make this in the next step) in the middle. 

This is an example of a Most Important/Least Important Framework. I want to learn how to design a service concept to meet the users' needs, so I created a framework to help the participant in prioritizing them. I've placed the card deck (we'll make this in the next step) in the middle. 

The first thing you'll need to do is decide what you want to learn from your card sort activity. Next, create a framework that drives at that learning. Frameworks provide different options for sorting cards. For example, I might want to sort cards by ranking them, or I might want to sort cards into Yes, No or Maybe piles. Or perhaps a Top 3 sort is the way to go for my problem. You get the picture.

Step Two: MAKE YOUR CARDS – Before talking to your participant, design your own deck! 

A few cheap materials and a list of needs is all you need to design your own card sort deck.

A few cheap materials and a list of needs is all you need to design your own card sort deck.

Materials Needed:
• Scissors
• Paper (or index cards)
• Pen or other writing utensil

The How Tos:

  1. Draw some rectangles on the piece of paper, these will be your cards. I recommend making them at least 2x3 
  2. Identify a number of needs and/or feelings relevant to your service concept (I recommend drawing words from this site)
  3. Record one word per rectangle
  4. Leave some rectangles blank to later use as write-ins
  5. Cut them out and group them together in a stack
  6. You have completed your card deck. Well done! Admire your work.

Step Three: LET'S DO THIS – Give your participant gentle guidelines.

In this example, each card has a different NEED on it, but you can also use the cards to have participants rank different service components. Again, it's a good idea to leave some blank cards. The blank card, in this example, has a write-in that shows a new need for "humor!"

In this example, each card has a different NEED on it, but you can also use the cards to have participants rank different service components. Again, it's a good idea to leave some blank cards. The blank card, in this example, has a write-in that shows a new need for "humor!"

You have your framework, you have your deck, now ask some questions.

  1. Explain how the activity should be completed; what is the participant's goal during the card sort?
  2. Let your participant own the cards and move them around themselves. No need to stay in the lines of the spectrum. If a card is placed outside the framework, simply ask "Why?"
  3. If the user asks what a word means, reflect the question back to them. The goal is to understand meaning on their terms, not on yours. 


Step Four: PAY ATTENTION – The sort is a reflection of the participant's thought process.

By capturing a photo of each participant's activity, you can later compare the resulting sorts to look for any patterns or discrepancies across different cross sections of your users.

By capturing a photo of each participant's activity, you can later compare the resulting sorts to look for any patterns or discrepancies across different cross sections of your users.

What does all this shuffling mean? As the participant sorts, be an observer.  

Pay attention to:

  1. Where people hesitate
  2. Which cards they immediately jump to
  3. Which card gets moved around a lot

Ask the participant to talk you through their thought process as they sort the cards. Sometimes the decisions they make during this deliberation reveal the biggest ah-has! Feel free to invite further sorting as the conversation unfolds. Remember, your discussion should be guided by your observations and the learning goals you laid out before creating the framework. After your participant has completed the activity, take a picture of the cards. Don't forget to add a card or stickie with the person's name so you can remember who the data belongs to!

So there you have it, ONE way to get thinking about card sorts. What are some frameworks that you've loved? Where else can a tool like this come in handy? Happy sorting! 

Message me: @alissa_joelle