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.

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!


Unknown at: 10:06 AM said...

hmmm. I guess you could use Skittles or M&Ms as substitutes for pennies. Even funner...and yummier!

Kraemer at: 1:14 PM said...

Great idea, Aaron. We'll have to try this approach soon. I like the idea of making it tactile. People can see and feel the physical effect of prioritization. Nice.

Unknown at: 1:47 PM said...

Thanks, Mark! Let me know how it works out for you.

David at: 8:42 PM said...

A less distracting and more hygienic way to go, so to speak, would be to use anti-bacterial go pieces. Something like:

They're a consistent mass, so you can "count" them with a digital scale. My 22mm x 5.5mm double convex stones are 2.4g each.

tshaw at: 12:36 PM said...

aaron, I conducted a facilitation session today using the penny sorter concept (with skittles), and the results were fantastic! mine wasn't one on one, so I assigned each person in the room a skittle color, then asked them to weight their pain points accordingly. i had a handout to go with the cups that described in a bulleted list what functional area each cup covered, and we had a brainstorming session prior for clarification.

what was most intriguing were the different approaches from each "subject." some just dove right in and started dropping skittles into each cup from pure feel. some were very hesitant and attentive to what more aggressive folks did first (so noted as good case for doing this individually so as not to invoke pressure). others were very meticulous and counted their total amount of skittles, ranked their pain points on the sheet from 1-7, then wrote down a number divisible into their total so that they could carefully weight each one to reflect their concern. it was a great distraction from complaining that can often happen in a poorly conducted facilitation session and forced the subjects to have tangible feedback on their concerns that can actually be measured.

i made a poor man's excel dashboard based on the results, and it will be a great visual attachment for the estimate.

i admitted to the group i was going out on a limb with this approach and hoped i didn't get scoffed at for what seemed to be a children's activity, but it was just the opposite. the last comment of the meeting was, "forget your concerns about this approach; i would definitely do this again."

tips: bring hand sanitizer and an extra bag of skittles for consumption. you can't put a pile of skittles in front of a group and tell them not to eat them.

Unknown at: 10:23 AM said...

that's great, Thomas!!! I'm so glad it worked out. Great idea to bring hand sanitizer, too!

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Aaron Hursman
Aaron Hursman is a passionate user-advocate who 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. Aaron is available as a speaker and author upon request.
Disclaimer: The information in this website is provided "as is" with no warranties, and confers no rights. This website does not represent the thoughts, intentions, plans or strategies of my employer. It is solely my own personal opinion. Inappropriate comments will be deleted at the authors discretion. All instructions and code samples (if any, ever) are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind, either express or implied.