Stupid Science: I compared 23 sticky notes to help you spare wallet and planet
Over the past months, I’ve done short instructional videos on how to use sticky notes (in French — you’re welcome to help in subtitling!). The main goals are to share best practices and make it easier for professional facilitators to ready participants.
One of the announced videos was “which sticky note model should I choose?”. It took a bit longer than expected to deliver. There was good reason for that delay though: I went overboard with scope in order to answer the question properly 😁
Thus, I present: “which sticky notes should you choose out of 23, based on way too much data”. (Want to get straight to the result? Ah, you’re missing on all the fun… just scroll down to the end 😉)
I compared products based on the issues most often encountered when using sticky notes in a professional agile setting:
- How well does the sticky stay on a wall over time?
- How likely is the ink to leak through a note?
- How hard is it to open the pack?
- How expensive are packs?
- How socially and environmentally sustainable is the product?
- How bad does the pack smell when you open it? 😄
After specific experiments, I rated each product on a 0-to-5 index for each of these dimensions.
Choosing the models to compare
I just took all the sticky notes I could get my hands on! And then, I thought 8 wasn’t worth it to run one-month-long experiments, so I just hunted and bought all the standard size, acceptably priced stickies on Amazon France.
I want to thank the AgileFrance association for supporting my efforts advancing the world’s knowledge on such a critical topic: if I was able to compare 23 models and not 8, that’s because I got a grant for it as a community member. Volunteering time + sharing financial resources = 💖
23 models is not 23 brands
So, what do we have on trial? The 3M common models: Post-It, Post-It Mini, Post-It Super Sticky (normal and XL), Post-It Recycled and the Tesa global competitor.
Some more local models. Common in France: Lyreco, Office Depot Recycled, Apli Classic, Apli Néon. I also discovered Germany produces some: Idena, Kyome Haftnotizklotz, Paperfoxx. And obviously, China and Taiwan: AB.M Idea, Cosanter JinXin, Stick’N Pop-up notes, Tiger Block.
Finally, a few almost “noname” from big EU distributors: 5 stars, Q-Connect, Snopake, NiceDay, Tartan; and an actual white label: a Red Cross-provided pack that was just lying around and that I included as a comparison element.
Enough with the context already, let’s make some science out of these pieces of paper! 😁
How many times have you moved a sticky note around, clustered it with some others, only to find it on the ground when you go back to the whiteboard after lunch break?
Since spatial position usually encodes information (or at least it should because human brains will believe it does anyway), falling stickies means lost information.
I set up two different testing grounds to simulate common situations.
One on a South-facing modern glass window: perfectly flat surface exposed to direct sunlight (Paris in August, 15–32°C, 160h of cumulated sunlight), ventilation holes and window next to it always open to ensure humidity variation. Since humidity is more controlled in offices, this simulates a whiteboard over a longer time
The other trial surface was a painted wall in the same room: same humidity variations but never exposed to direct sunlight, and slightly grainier. This simulates an office wall over a longer time.
I obviously stuck notes following best practice, ensured equal force was applied on all of them, and thoroughly cleaned both surfaces beforehand.
All stickies were much more stable than expected. None fell over 30 days! I suspect this is the consequence of using my full weight to stick them, as that was the only way to ensure consistent force.
Another hypothesis was that they went straight from pack to wall and the glue was more efficient this way, but I ran a parallel experiment over two hours trying to measure after how many sticking-unsticking cycles the glue would run out, and it turns out the limit is above 150. I could measure no difference in falling tendencies. Even with a fan under the note for 5 minutes. Crazy, right.
It also appears that there is no perceivable change in stickiness between 20 days and 30 days. In a similar fashion, the window surface increases overall stickiness, but products fared comparably on both surfaces. Put otherwise, either the glue is poor right from the start and for all surfaces, or it has good chances to stay for long.
Since I received each model on a different date, I could not have 30 days of exposure for all of them. However, since days 20 and 30 had no difference in measured stickiness for models that were exposed that long, and since wall surface simply made it easier to spot glue failure without changing tendencies, it is sufficient to observe the wall at day 20.
I rated each model based on the following scale:
- 5 = perfect adherence
- 4 = tooting visible on detailed inspection
- 3 = tooting visible 1 meter afar
- 2 = not readable from all angles
- 1 = about to fall
You should thus prefer one of the 8 products with the best glue, especially if you intend to leave your stickies on the wall for a long time: the 3M Post-It Recycled or Super Sticky models, the Cosanter JinXin, Lyreco, Q-Connect, Stick’N or Tartan. Other brands can still have good sticking power, but I won’t list all of them inline. You can look at the data if you’re curious 😉
Write down your idea on that sticky note with a marker (properly), remove it from the pack and stick it on the wall (properly), correct a typo on it, realise that you stained both the wall and the second sticky. Rage.
Sticky notes that let ink go through are at best environmental and financial waste, at worst used as an unreadable medium by participants.
Markers have different inks and solvents, ranging from very light (like a pen) to very strong (like a paint marker). In order to represent that range, I taped 6 of them together, ensured their tips were perfectly aligned, and pushed that tool on the stickies packs.
I hit stickies packs strongly with that tool from about 10 cm above, and kept pushing down for 5 seconds.
I then counted the visible dots on each following note. In order to reduce variation, I repeated that process 3 times for each product.
I counted dots on each note, and took the mean of the three runs. For example, for the series on the left, each column is a run. The first note (obviously) has all 6 tips visible. Two tips always leak on the sticky that comes next on the pack, thus mean is 2 for note 2. The third note has one run with 0 dots, one with 1 dot, one with 2 dots. The mean is thus (0+1+2)/3 = 1.
I counted means this way until note 6 (no model leaked beyond that point, which is already considerable). It is worth noting, however, that leaking in this stress-test trial does not mean leakage would be systematically observed in standard usage: the pressure applied is much stronger and much longer.
Even with the importance of the applied stress, the range of possibilities is very wide, as shown in the distribution graph. Two models never leaked beyond note 2 (3M Recycled Post-It and Stick’N Pop-up Notes), while some kept leaking until note 6 (notably NiceDay, which consistently let one marker type through).
In order to ease comparison across dimensions, I computed an index for the “ink penetration” dimension. This index normalises the means for all notes to a mark from 0 to 5. Look at the data if you want the exact formula.
Ease of opening
The brainstorming session starts. One participant runs out of sticky notes. As you’re well prepared, you take a new pack out of your bag.
“Does anyone have scissors?” Nope. Two minutes of fighting with plastic wrapping ensue. It was a fun break, but the participant lost focus and forgot their idea.
Purely human-based and biaised. I rated each pack from 1 (impossible to open without a cutting utensil) to 5 (excellent affordance and usage of the self-opening device). I did not get all models as new packs, some are consequently not rated in this dimension.
Packaging does not seem to be an integral part of product design for most brands. The ones that are awarded a 5 clearly show a precut easy opening (3M Post-it Recycled), or a ribbon to tear the plastic wrapping : Cosanter, Idena, Q-Connect, Paperfoxx and Tesa.
The worst rankings were for a few brands seemingly taking pleasure in using the most shreddable plastic wrapping with strong glue (Snopake), or in suggesting ways to open that are even less productive than tearing the packaging apart (Stick’N Pop-up notes).
The case of 3M plastic-wrapped products (i.e. all but Recycled Post-it Notes) is interesting. Indeed, the precutting does work very well if you know how to use it (see video). Functionality is good, but discoverability is so bad this package-opening tutorial is the most popular video in the series!
Very simple: divide the price of a pack by the number of stickies in it 😉 I did not take transportation costs into account as they are not linear, and can be offset if you buy other products in the same order.
Prices can vary over time due to dynamic pricing in online retailers. It is also possible that you will get different prices depending on the retailer, or get a sale or a discount. I minimised this effect by recording only the standard prices of a single retailer (Amazon), over a single week. The main aim being to compare prices relatively to each other, I believe this allows for a fair evaluation of the incurred costs.
Prices vary wildly from the cheapest Chinese product with notes worth less than a cent to the fanciest at a sixth of an euro a piece.
I did not buy the few even more expensive products for this study, as they are too expensive to be considered in a professional usage anyway.
The median price is 0.02 €, and anything more expensive than 0.05 € a note is clearly a ripoff.
I normalised these results on a 0 to 5 scale simply by linearly rating the price from most expensive (0) to least expensive (5).
A displeasing smell is not only a matter of comfort. Smell indeed mostly comes from solvent, which means it can be a sign of harmful chemicals used in the adhesive that you’re going to put your hands on and let evaporate in your working space for days.
Beyond the (admittedly limited) risk to health of small doses, an uncomfortable smell on pack opening is always a distraction to the group, and can induce headaches in the most sensitive participants.
Once again, easy and biased. If I don’t smell anything when I open the pack, I award 5. The worse and longer it smells, the less points.
The vast majority of products have no smell at all when opened. But the worst, Tiger Block, had me breathing through the mouth for about 10 minutes.
The case of the Tartan brand is interesting. Indeed, it disappoints in the smell dimension, while it scored well everywhere else. Concurrently, while this brand is basically nonexistent on the internet, its production address is… the same as 3M’s! I thus suspected this product to be a “noname” cheaper version of the 3M Post-it Notes, but at least the solvent used is different.
We know what stickies are for, but we don’t often think about where they come from and where they go when they die 😉
As agile or collective intelligence professionals, wouldn’t it be fitting that we ensure the sustainability of the tools we use to help others reach sustainable efficiency?
I researched each brand for its certifications and policies, and awarded points on the following elements:
- 2.5 points for paper: recycled and FSC certified sustainable sources give points, the higher proportion the better.
- Half a point for both sustainable adhesive sources and solvent-less glue.
- 1 point for carbon footprint: 0.75 for producing in the EU (if you’re on another continent, this should be awarded to producers in your vicinity); 0.25 for assessing lifecycle carbon footprint.
- Half a point for both recyclable packaging and guaranteed recyclability.
Three products stands out. The 3M Recycled Post-it reaches a high score thanks to its 100% recycled paper and recycled cardboard packaging. The only other brand with a recycled cardboard packaging, Stick’N, lost the associated points because said package also contained a glued sponge (!) used to lift up the notes from beneath. 3M products also get a further bonus thanks to their Pulp and Paper Sourcing Policy, explicitly asking since 2015 all 3M provider chain to respect not only the natural enviroment, but also the rights of workers, indigenous people and rural communities.
An equivalent socially responsible policy is claimed by GlobalNotes, the German manufacturer for both Paperfoxx and Tesa. They are also obviously advantaged for producing in the EU (if you’re in the US, 3M is thus even better as they produce in Kentucky). But beyond that, though the notes are not made from 100% recycled paper, their durable paper sourcing is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. These brands don’t benefit from their plastic wrapping, but compensate by using water-based solvents.
This is what the German brand Idena lacks, along with a socially responsible sourcing policy.
The 3M Super Sticky models follow, thanks to their durable adhesive (67% by weight coming from annual plants, as opposed to chemical production). The attention to adhesive also gives a boost to Apli, a Spanish brand not using solvents in its glue.
Even the least specific 3M models get acceptable ratings thanks in part to their incorporation of recycled material (0 to 30% depending on the colour), but also because of the care the brand takes in guaranteeing the recyclability of its products: the adhesive and inks have been tested for dissolving in the dye-removal part of the recycling process. This is the only brand in this study claiming to have conducted such tests.
It is saddening to see that most brands do not give any message about sustainability in their products. It is also worth noting that no product reaches even 4 out of 5 points in this dimension: no sticky note seems to have the “holy grail” FSC 100% (or 100% recycled) certification for their papers, and even 3M does not (yet?) incorporate its Super Sticky adhesive innovations in all its products.
And the winner is…
The 3M Recycled Post-it!
Classic brand, but a somehow unexpected model. I did not expect the Recycled version to be not only one of the most sustainable, but also so much better at stickiness than its “standard” counterpart, and to outperform all other models in the ink penetration test. Maybe its heavier fabric is to thank.
I am thrilled to conclude that the most efficient and cost-effective choice is also the most sustainable!
I hope this piece of research was useful and brought some smiles along the way. Beyond producing “stupid science”, having fun and taking agile way too seriously, I believe we have a strong responsibility in educating as “change agents”, “coaches” or whatever we like to call ourselves these days. If you consider switching to this model, even if on pure efficiency or cost-effectiveness ground, use it as an opportunity for a discussion on sustainability with yoursef, your clients, participants and fellow coaches.
Through questioning our practices thoroughly, we might well discover other occasions on which the best thing to do for ourselves is also the best for the rest of the world.
Please challenge or support this piece based on your experience! 🙂 Science is only reliable when it is reproducible, which is why I tried to describe as precisely as possible everything I did and opened the source data.
How to support this work
If you want to equip yourself while supporting this research, you can use the following affiliate links to buy on Amazon:
I will use this money to give the granted amount back to AgileFrance, making it easier for other members to get funding for their own endeavours.
You can subtitle the videos on how to use stickies in your language.
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Oh, and please let me know if you do change habits. If this work has any impact, I’d love to know! 😄
Know of another crazy comparison? Let me know!
This piece of stupid science would not have been the same without AgileFrance, Nicolas, Thomas, Alban, Raphaël, Yannick, Colin, Guillaume, Julien, Laurent and Anouchka. Thank you all so much for supporting me in such endeavours 💝