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How Card Sorting Can Help You Understand User Priorities

Alexander Osterwalder

Before you design a solution or even develop the features of your value proposition, you’ll first want to make sure you understand what matters most to your customers. What are the potential jobs, pains, and gains they experience and in what order will you address those customer needs? In this post, I’ll explain how a simple card sorting exercise can help you understand your customers' priorities. 

Once you have an idea of what customers might want, the big question is what should be implemented first? There are so many things you could do, but you’ll need to prioritize what comes first, second, and so on.

Let’s take a look at how this simple card sorting exercise can help you learn what your customers value the most.

1. Define a list of priorities

You ideally want to make a list of about 10 things your customers can prioritize during the session. This list will be a collection of jobs, pains, and gains that might matter to your audience. The list can come from your own internal brainstorming exercises, or you can gather them by conducting customer interviews.

Note: As a best practice, it’s important to create a list that will either be a collection of jobs, pains, and gains, or value proposition features. It should be one or the other, so be careful not to mix them together.

2. Make your cards with images and crystal clear descriptions

Make sure the cards your customers will prioritize are super explicit and leave no room for doubt. Each card must have a little image representing the job, pain, or gain and a description. The description and accompanying image must be very short and very clear. For example, a card could say “I want my kids to eat healthy”; “I want more time to read the newspaper”; or “I want to go to the gym once a week”.

3. Schedule your interviews and get your customers to prioritize

Give your customer the cards and ask them to prioritize in order of importance. Phone interviews are fine, but face-to-face sessions will prove to be more engaging. Encourage your customer to comment on why they put one card before the other as they organize each one. Pay attention to what is completely irrelevant to your subjects and put those cards aside as you conduct more interviews.

Note: Take note of what’s not in your list that might keep coming up during your session. This is important if your list was developed from an internal brainstorm: you’re at risk that your list might have nothing to do with your customers’ priorities. If your list was developed through a co-creation exercise with your customers, then you’re more likely to be working off of their actions.

4. Crunch the data and analyze the patterns

Did you notice that your subjects might have similar priorities in their lives? What other kinds of segmentation emerged from the exercise? Perhaps customers in Brazil had organized a very different list from customers you interviewed in Canada. Are you starting to understand which jobs, pains, and gains to focus on?

Note: This exercise will not clearly display the weighting customers put behind each job, pain, or gain. For example the top 3 cards might be super important to your subjects, but the remaining 7 could just be a “nice-to-have”. You could follow up this exercise by giving your customers a hypothetical budget of $100 to allocate across the 10 items they’ve organized. You could then ask, “How much would you be willing to pay to assure your kids eat healthy food?” And your customer might respond, “I’ll give $80 out of my $100 for that.”

Next Steps

So now you’ve got your customers to prioritize a list that will give you a better understanding of what matters to them. Be aware: what your customers say they’ll do is not always what they’ll actually do. This might be a wish list, but it won’t necessarily correspond to real life behavior. You have to follow up with tests and experiments to see if your audience will invest in the things that matter to them in the real world.

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