Penny Sorting: A User Research Game

Let’s face it, user research can be a total bore…especially for the research subjects. Answering numerous survey and interview questions can lull them to sleep. They are taking time out of their busy day to answer a slew of boring questions when they would probably rather be doing something else. As a result, the data we collect from existing techniques can be suboptimal…especially when the subject is disengaged due to the use of antiquated research methods.

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

So, here is an alternative technique that can produce even better results, because it engages research subjects in a fun and tactile game format. Pulling inspiration from the term, card sorting, I call it, Penny Sorting. Here’s how it works:



  • 1 research subject (user)
  • 1 or 2 facilitators


  1. take subject into a quiet room with table and shut door
  2. setup cups in a horizontal line on table
  3. give marker to subject
  4. ask subject to label each cup with a pain point
  5. give subject pennies
  6. ask subject to distribute all pennies across cups putting the most in the cup that represents their biggest pain point (and so on)

When completed, thank the user and capture the data in electronically (spreadsheet, etc.). It would be *really* cool if you had a coin counter onsite. Anyway, repeat exercise with as many potential users/stakeholders as you have time for. You’ll need to do some synthesis before the data is ready to be analyzed (subjects will use different labels).

This method just works because:

As you can imagine, the variables in the game can be modified to your liking. You might use a different number of cups or pennies. You could have the users label Post-It sticky notes and place them near the cups instead of writing on them directly. However, the best variable to play with is the “pain point” instruction. You could do this exercise again and ask the subject to instead label the cups with their:

  • most crucial personal needs
  • most important business goals
  • most important responsibilities
  • biggest daily concerns

In fact, while you have the user there in person, you might as well run through the exercise multiple times, but change the question in #4 each time. Happy sorting!

About Aaron Hursman
Aaron is a passionate user-advocate that is lucky enough to do what he loves for a living. As a user experience architect, he applies user-centered design principles and techniques including user research, persona development, information architecture, storyboards, wireframes, prototyping, visual design, graphic design, interaction design, and usability. Aaron has a background in web development, enterprise applications, and the social web. At nGame, he is applying his craft to design and build the next generation of enterprise software.

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