Card Sorting for Cartographic Research and Practice

By Roth, Robert E.; Finch, Benjamin G. et al. | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Card Sorting for Cartographic Research and Practice

Roth, Robert E., Finch, Benjamin G., Blanford, Justine I., Klippel, Alexander, Robinson, Anthony C., MacEachren, Alan M., Cartography and Geographic Information Science


Categorization is a fundamental way in which humans make sense of their world, and therefore is a critical way in which knowledge is organized (Abler et al. 1971; Lakoff 1987; MacEachren 1995; Margolis and Laurence 1999). The card sorting method is a knowledge elicitation technique designed to reveal the conceptual structures, or categorizations of targeted individuals (Cooke 1994). Card sorting requires participants to organize a set of instances, referred to as cards due to the original use of analog index cards into internally-homogenous groups, or categories according to similarity along an identified sorting principle or criterion (Spencer 2009). Depending on the card-sorting variant, the sorting criterion and categories may or may not be provided, and the kind of information placed on the cards may be different (text, images, icons, etc.).

The potential of card sorting for both cartographic research and practice is substantial. As the number of symbols included on the map grows, it becomes increasingly unlikely that map readers will be able to remember and thus immediately identify the feature type represented by each symbol. Organizing map symbols into broader categories improves the memorability of symbols by imposing a grouping rule, better delineates key themes within the map when the symbols are designed to reflect their higher-level category, and structures map legends for improved symbol reference. Card sorting is particularly promising for the design and organization of qualitative point symbol sets that use pictorial symbols to signify differences in kind, as the method works best for sorting items on the same semantic level (Osgood et al. 1957) into nominal categories (McGeorge and Rugg 1992) that have a single-level hierarchy (Wood and Wood 2008). Additional benefits to the application of card sorting to cartographic design include categorization of previously ungrouped map symbols, critique and refinement of existing symbol categorizations, and identification of missing or ambiguous symbols within a symbol set. Finally, the card sorting technique may be useful for integrating expert knowledge into a mapping system that automates the design of symbols and associated legend layouts.

The research reported here is part of a broader line of work at the Penn State GeoVISTA Center on map symbology for emergency management and first response (Akella 2009; Koua et al. 2009; Robinson et al. 2010). Specifically, this research is part of our work to develop a collaborative, yet distributed process for designing and sharing 'mission-specific' map symbol sets to support the range of mission areas for which government agencies use maps. Our focus in this article is on the practical application of card sorting to design a single symbol set for a specific mapping context, rather than its use as a scientific mode of inquiry to produce generalizable and repeatable results. The framework we present for application of card sorting in cartography, however, is designed to be relevant to support both research and practice.

This article proceeds with five additional sections. In the following section, we review relevant work on card sorting in the fields of psychology, usability engineering, and GIScience. We then outline a framework organizing variants of the card sorting method when applied to cartography In the fourth section, we introduce our case study and experimental design. As a demonstration of the applicability of card sorting as a method, and as initial input to the larger research project on map symbology cited above, we conducted a card sorting study with twenty Penn State undergraduates. Specifically, the study was designed to evaluate an existing emergency mapping qualitative point symbol standard designed by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Homeland Security Working Group (ANSI INCITS 415-2006) to support emergency management and first response. We present and discuss the results of the card sorting study in the fifth section and offer concluding remarks and future directions in the sixth and final section. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Card Sorting for Cartographic Research and Practice


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.