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Pile Sorts: A Research Method Both Anthropology and UX Share

pile sorts. a ton of colorful sticky notes

In a previous post, I mentioned that the field of UX (User Experience) is a popular field for Anthropologists to go into if they don’t want to teach. Why is this? Well, one reason is that UX and Anthropology have many research methods in common. So Anthropologists are trained in many of the same types of research that UX researchers do. One similar research method is pile sorts. Well, Anthropology calls them pile sorts, but UX calls them card sorts. First, I’ll explain how Anthropology uses pile sorts, and then I’ll explain how UX uses card sorts.

Pile Sorts in Anthropology

What is a Pile Sort?

Basically, in a pile sort activity, you present a participant with a set of items, such as a group of photographs, physical objects, or index cards with words written on them. Then you ask the person to sort the items into piles by putting the items that go together in the same pile. Since you are sorting the items into piles, this method is called a pile sort. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Many participants think so!

What Does a Pile Sort Tell Us?

So what kind of information does a pile sort give us? A pile sort gives us insight into how people categorize things. To help you understand this, you can try a pile sort activity. Take a look at the cards in the image below, and decide how you would sort the cards into piles.

pile sort image

How did you sort the cards? One way you could have sorted the cards was by making a pile of land creatures and another pile of sea creatures. Or, you could have sorted the cards into a pile of creatures that breathe air, and a pile of creatures that use gills. You also could have sorted the cards into a pile for pets and a pile for non-pets.

Examples of Pile Sorts

Here’s an example of a pile sorting activity from the field of Nutritional Anthropology. You could have cards with different foods on them, and you could ask the participants to sort the cards into healthy foods and unhealthy foods. You could also have them sort the cards into breakfast food, lunch foods, and dinner foods.

Now here’s an example of a pile sorting activity from the field of Medical Anthropology, which studies health and illness from an anthropological perspective. A Medical Anthropologist could ask participants to sort cards with different illnesses on them in piles based on their perceived severity. So, for example, one pile could be for mild illnesses, and one pile could be for severe illnesses. Then the anthropologist would find out which diseases were considered mild, and which diseases were considered severe, and could discuss how those determinations were made.

Here’s another example of pile sorting from Anthropology. In one study, the researchers wanted to understand how coca was perceived in South America. They used pile sorting to find out if coca was considered a food, beverage, or drug. They found out that even though coca was chewed like a food or drunk in a tea like a beverage, it was considered a drug.

pile sorts. tons of sticky notes with words written on them

Card Sorts in UX Research

What is a Card Sort?

Now, I’d like to talk about a similar research method in UX, called cart sorts. Card sorts are when a participant sorts photos or cards with words on them into groups. The photographs or cards can be physical items, or they can be virtual items on a computer screen. As you can see, this is basically the same method as a pile sort in Anthropology.

What Does a Card Sort Tell Us?

UX Researchers use card sorts to tell them which items should be grouped together on a webpage or mobile phone app screen. Card sorts can also tell UX Researchers what items should be grouped together in a menu for a website or phone app.

Example of Card Sorting

Here’s an example of how card sorts can be used in creating a real thing. Have you ever used the self-checkout kiosk in a grocery store? If you bought produce, you may have had to select a category of products, which then took you to a screen with a list of produce in that category. Then you could select the specific item you bought. You may have been frustrated if you chose a category and then the specific item you bought was not listed. A UX Research wanting to improve the self-checkout experience could use card sorts to see how people categorized different foods. Then the results of the card sort could be used to improve the categorization on the self-checkout display.

Learn More

As you can see, an Anthropologist who is trained in pile sorts will have the training to conduct card sorts as a UX Researcher. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about other research methods that Anthropology and UX have in common.

Want to learn more about pile sorts and card sorts? Check out these links!

Thanks for reading!