How UX helped me sort my head

Last month my girlfriend and I sat down for a little old-fashioned card sorting.

Card sorting is a low-tech research method that helps user experience (UX) designers figure out how an app or website should be organized. They find people who would be likely to use that website, hand each one a stack of cards with page titles from the site, and watch as the testers arrange the cards into categories. Then they ask them to name each category.

When the research goes well, designers learn something new about how web visitors might think. Perhaps not everyone will look for tomatoes on the fruit menu, or expect to see motorcycles when they click “bikes.”

Unfortunately Michelle and I weren’t sorting web pages. We were sorting my life.

I had woken up at 4 am with my head full of things.

  • There were practical things, like “What do I need to do today?” and “How can I mow the lawn without mowing dog poo?”
  • There were personal things like “I am easily overstimulated” and “Teenagers make me nervous.”
  • I’m eight months into a full-blown job/housing/relationship conversion (read: mid-life crisis), so there were lists of potential careers, ideas about how to choose a career, and soaring life-purpose queries like “What inspires me?”
  • Because it was 4 a.m., there were also terse metaphysical questions like “What matters?”

“That’s a lot of things,” said Michelle when she came over at 10:00.

I handed her a stack of cards.

The next half-hour was, by turns, intriguing, humbling and clarifying. Michelle grouped some of my cards neatly into the categories I imagined, but others she had no idea what to do with. Two collections received new titles, “Positive self-image” and “Negative self-image.” Several categories were combined.

It turns out that making an exhaustive inventory of all the thoughts in your head — and then exposing the messy catalog to an editor you trust — is a great way to get perspective on your inner life.

After Michelle left, I threw out whole stacks of cards. I wasn’t really interested in running a photography business, I decided — just in being a photographer. Similarly, I didn’t want to apply for work I merely knew how to do or that would somehow be good for the world — I wanted a job that was fun.

Over the next few days, the discarding expanded to other piles. I abandoned a project to use 300 film slides from my days as a visual artist. I dispatched books (Ulysses, 1001 Spanish Verbs) that, after a decade of disuse, provided more discouragement than inspiration. I deleted social media accounts. I converted favorite t-shirts into favorite cleaning rags. I even considered jettisoning a collection of 100 small bagged and labeled objects found on city sidewalks — but after acquiring a Domino and a wooden play block in one week, I decided that collection still has potential.

Not everybody is overwhelmed by options like I am. And it’s difficult to measure how much this one exercise loosened my mental logjam. But (and perhaps I should have seen this coming) it did make me think seriously about UX design.

Early May was Tech Week in Philadelphia, and I attended a couple of design events. A few days later I went to the website for General Assembly — purveyor of tech bootcamps in 15 cities — and now find myself headed to New York for a 10-week UX design immersive.


Want a rigorous reshuffle of your mental space? Try card sorting your life, and let me know how it turns out.


  1. Get a pack of at least 100 index cards — or if that seems too pretty, chop up scrap paper. There should be nothing precious about putting marks on these papers.
  2. Find a place that you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour.
  3. Write down everything that pops into your head, even if it seems ridiculous, petty or self-conscious. Don’t try to categorize — just write.
  4. Fill all 100 cards. At least.


  1. Find someone you trust. Ask if they would help you with an organization exercise.
  2. Reassure them that you are not testing them (or their friendship!) and that there are no wrong answers.
  3. Ask your friend to think aloud while sorting, and ask them questions about decisions they make that interest you.
  4. Provide blank cards so they can provide their own category labels.
  5. Don’t try to explain yourself or the cards. Prepare yourself to hear things that may be surprising, awkward or even offensive. Remember: your friend isn’t passing judgment on your humanity — they’re just sorting cards.
  6. Take notes on anything that catches your interest.