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Making it tangible: hybrid card sorting within qualitative interviews

Lettie Y. Conrad (Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia)
Virginia M. Tucker (School of Information, San José State University, San Jose, California, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 30 November 2018

Issue publication date: 19 February 2019




Qualitative researchers and information practitioners often investigate questions that probe the underlying mental models, nuanced perspectives, emotions and experiences of their target populations. The in-depth qualitative interview is a dominant method for such investigations and the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how incorporating hybrid card-sorting activities into interviews can enable deeper participant reflections and generate rich data sets to increase understanding.


Following a review of relevant literature, the case illustration presented is a grounded theory study into the student-researcher information experience with personal academic information management. This study uses hybrid card sorting within in-depth, semi-structured interviews, a unique adaptation that extends multi-disciplinary awareness of the benefits of card-sort exercises for qualitative research.


Emerging from diverse fields, ranging from computer science, engineering, psychology and human–computer interaction, card sorting seeks to illuminate how participants understand and organise concepts. The case illustration draws largely on methods used in interaction design and information architecture. Using either open or fixed designs, or hybrid variations, card-sort activities can make abstract concepts more tangible for participants, offering investigators a new approach to interview questions with the aid of this interactive, object-based technique.


Opening with a comprehensive review of card-sort studies, the authors present an information experience case illustration that demonstrates the rich data generated by hybrid card sorting within qualitative interviews, or interactive interviews. This is followed by discussion of the types of research questions that may benefit from this original method.



The authors are grateful to information architecture and user experience experts for bringing the card-sort method to researchers like the authors. The authors also thank the San José Gateway PhD community, in particular Drs Mary Somerville and Guy Gable, for inspiration, feedback, and suggestions that helped to shape this paper. Ethics clearance and permission to use participants’ anonymised interview data are in accordance with QUT Low Risk Research Approval #1600000992.


Conrad, L.Y. and Tucker, V.M. (2019), "Making it tangible: hybrid card sorting within qualitative interviews", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 2, pp. 397-416.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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