I understand how card sorting and affinity diagramming work (both are fairly well documented online), but they seem so similar that I'm not sure what the difference between the two is, if any?

Are they different names for exactly the same process?

Or are they very similar tools that get used in different contexts or at different stages of the design process?

  • According to Wikipedia, card sorting is one way of coming up with an affinity diagram. I've used these with classmates, though, to ["see which ideas are most common within the group [of participants]"](gamestorming.com/core-games/affinity-map) and to merge similar items in a big brainstormed list...used that way, I think that affinity mapping/diagramming serves a purpose for which card sorting would be ill-suited. Then again, there's no law against sorting cards into groups and using one of the cards as a label. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
    – Nate Green
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:29

4 Answers 4


Both Affinity Diagramming and Card Sorting are used for Product Planning & Information architecture.

Affinity Diagramming - this is done with a group which you have to present your guiding question and people will write their opinions on information on sticky and paste on the whiteboard or wall, then collect all ideas you ask that group make the set of the ideas which make more sense to them.

Card Sorting - There are two types of card sorting:

  1. Open Card Sorting

In this participants are asked to organize topics from content within your website into groups that make sense to them and then name each group they created in a way that they feel accurately describes the content. Use an open card sort to learn how users group content and the terms or labels they give each category.

  1. Closed Card Sorting

In Closed Card Sorting, participants are asked to sort topics from content within your website into pre-defined categories. A closed card sort works best when you are working with a pre-defined set of categories, and you want to learn how users sort content items into each category.


Great question!

There's no substantial difference between those two methods.

Affinity Map Sessions have two main goals:

  • Generate discussion.
  • Organise Content.

Card Sorting Sessions have one main goal:

  • Organise Content.

While discussions do naturally occur during Card Sorting sessions, and you can even take notes on that, it's NOT their main purpose.

So, we end up using Affinity Map sessions with internal teams more often, due to the discuss element of it, and Card Sorting more with the users.

BUT, nothing stops you to use Affinity Map sessions with the users.

At the end, what to choose? Evaluate your users, do you think you will get useful information allowing them a more open to discussing session? Go with Affinity Maps. Are they introvert? Hard to think out loud? Go with Card Sorting.

Bottom line, they have nuances, but they have the same goal at end.

There's someone who can explain it, much better than me:

So, you know, at the core they’re the same because they’re about getting little pieces of stuff and assembling them into bigger. The difference is with a card sort…and they’ve just come out of history in different ways… in a card sort I would do that with external people or people who will be users of the site, in an affinity diagramming session I would tend to use that with my design team.

Donna Spencer

cf. http://uxpod.com/card-sorting-an-interview-with-donna-maurer-spencer/


I'm not too familiar with affinity diagramming, but it seems it's an activity that a project team will go through, to organize their findings and knowledge about a project.

Card sorting is an activity that a UX researcher will facilitate with users and knowledge experts, as a way to capture what they know about a field. The results then shape the organization of a website or taxonomy, and will inform the nomenclature used in the design.


At the heart, they are similiar processes and even get to a similiar end state of organized and labeled information.

The big difference is that each is used in different contexts and the actual words mean different things.

Affinity is largely used for organizing research, issues, ideas, etc. with the real purpose of getting teams branstorming and synthesizng information to determine major themes, develop common understanding, determine priority, etc. It's about the group discussion and understanding.

Card sort is typically a user research method that helps a usability professional better understand what information they see as related, why, and what they call their groups to build a better organization and navigation. It can be done by one user or a group of them.

With all that being said, I have actually used a card sorting tool to facilitate a large remote subject matter expert group discussion to group (code) qualitative survey responses. Very interesting process that wasn't quite a card sort and didnt follow the true affinity process.

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