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3 tips to make sticky notes actually useful after a workshop

Once upon a time on a project not that long ago, I led an ideation workshop. The experts were in the room, everyone was tossing out ideas, and stacks and stacks of sticky notes are being used. I was grouping the notes. And regrouping them. We left with hundreds of sticky note ideas covering every surface — thrilled and exhausted at the same time.

So now what? I had to document all of these notes into a digestible, actionable plan. But scanning through the notes I found half-finished, out-of-context ideas.

What happened to all of the majestic ideas? They made perfect sense at the moment, but now they’re next to useless. I was frustrated and felt like I wasted time.

Let’s look at the sticky note that started this downward spiral:

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One simple, nondescript word: Notifications.

I read this and thought: What are these notifications about? Where are they? Who gets them? When do they get them? Who said this?

I’m not being harsh on the person who wrote this because let’s face it, it was probably me (it wasn’t). In the heat of the moment, I thought “This is great! I’m going to remember what this means,” or I simply don’t have time to write down all the details. But then, those three hours go by, I’ve exhausted my mental capacity, and I’m wracking my brain for who said what when. If that’s not bad enough, now I’ve invited my own biases in as I try to translate the sticky.

A marvelous sticky note has insight, context, and reference, but must also be written quickly.

The great idea.
The behavior.
The pain point.
This is the bulk of the note.

The sweet spot is 3–10 words for an insight. This is why using Sharpies are a must, the broad stroke forces you to be brief. If you need more words to describe the idea, it’s too big. Divide it up into multiple sticky notes. If it’s fewer words, try to be a bit more specific.

In general, you should be able to show this insight to anyone on your team and they should know what you’re talking about.

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A slightly more descriptive note: Notifications about project milestones

Cool. Now I understand what we’re looking for here, but I still don’t have a ton of information to go on outside of this text.

The situation.
The background.
The behavior.

AKA tagging. There’s a big difference between “Project milestone notifications should be removed.” and “We need to make project milestone notifications more prominent.”

You need context. For example, is this a pain point? Is this a current behavior? Is this something that’s desired? If you’re analyzing research instead of working through ideation, there are great articles written on how to tag your research, like this one.

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Contextual sticky note: User Priority — Notifications about project milestones

Tactically, I’ll use smaller writing at the top or bottom in shorthand to note the context. Like ‘Current’ or ‘Requested’. It gets the point across without needing to write much more.

The prompt.
The user.
The feature.

Reference is not always needed. The context may be enough information by itself. You’ll have to determine prior to the session if you need a frame of reference. There are a couple of scenarios where this is helpful:

While analyzing research:

  • You can see the prevalence and trends across multiple participants or segments.
  • If all the notes are from one participant, either they were a great participant, or they’re an outlier.
  • You need to reference the interview notes to understand the note.

For storytelling in presentations:

  • You want to pull a specific user story or scenario.
  • You want to pull a quote to help tell the story.

For ideation:

  • You want to tie the note back to a specific prompt, feature, or user.
  • You want to tie the note back to a specific ideation participant.
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Insightful, contextual sticky note with a reference code.

If you decide to include a reference, it can be done by color coding or a simple coding system. Make sure everyone involved understands the system before they begin writing. For research analysis, I’ve used a simple letter & numbering system (i.e. B8, A2) to tie insights back to the user group and participant.

So, by applying insight, context, and reference, this sticky note becomes so much more helpful. Yes, it does take a few seconds longer to write, but I’d argue it’s worth it.

Include this framework at the beginning of your workshop with other best practices. Build on the ideas of others, no bad ideas, and write perfect stickies. See? Flows so well.

Long live sticky notes.

Written by

Understanding people, organizing information, and designing products—all while eating donuts.

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