Flip charts. Dry erase boards. Slide projectors. Plasma TVs. We have lots of ways to display information for groups of people. Lots of ways to move it around in real-time as well.

But somehow we keep coming back to tiny, colorful pieces of paper.

That’s right. I’m talking about sticky notes.

You may have noticed that I’m no stranger to the sticky note methods. Though equally adept with flip charts and no slouch with dry erase, I’ve noticed that sticky notes have a strange symbolism and power that’s out of proportion with their size. Why is that?

question sticky

The association of sticky notes with design methods, strategy workshops, and any form of ideation is especially strong. In the face of alternative technologies, I don’t think this is an accident or simply the legacy of old practices. It also has nothing to do with the low tech offices where development practitioners often find themselves; the little paper squares find plenty of use in more tech savvy and connected work environments.

The next time you’re scribbling on a stack of notes, think about the unique qualities that they have.

Small, constraining, focusing. You can’t write a long, rambling paragraph on a sticky note. At most, you can fit a complete sentence, but usually we only put a few words. This requires you to focus your thinking, target the essence of the idea, and decide how ideas split across multiple notes. Brevity is the soul of wit. Necessity, the mother of invention.

This is especially critical when trying to synthesize multiple data types, understand narratives, or reconcile differing perspectives. Focusing down to the quantum — the smallest measurable unit — puts different forms of knowledge on equal footing.

Visual, metaphorical, vague. Sticky notes put information in front of you (or a group) where you can see it. It’s data visualization. Regardless of the technology, data visualization is always about metaphors: even the simplest line graphs represent relationships between multiple data points in a visual space, though the facts represented may have no inherent visual or geometric properties.

With sticky notes, we can take a large number of ideas, data points, insights, etc. and place them in a physical space — and then try out different arrangements. Do all these contextual factors go together, or should we break the category into multiple columns with separate headers? Are observations made by community leaders similar to the ones made by government officials, or do we need consider them separately? Which facts (notes) fail to fit in any of the other groupings, and what does that tell us?

I can’t overstate the value of this externalization. For a single analyst, this allows you to “store” and interrogate complex arrangements beyond what you can hold in your head at a single moment. For groups, this transparency ensures joint consideration of the same possibilities. The vagueness of this is also key: with a written document, you have to find the right words to articulate the relationships between elements; but when it’s visual, a general grouping is enough to highlight that there’s some connection, and you can refrain from exact definitions until you gain clarity.

idea sticky

Tactile, active, collaborative. Excel spreadsheets are also useful tools: the cells are constraining, they allow you to quickly rearrange elements, and you can project the results on a wall for group sessions.

But sticky notes bring something else: the real world. Virtual interfaces seek to mimic real-world dynamics. That’s why the physics in a game like Angry Birds is so important, and why touchscreen UIs include features like momentum scrolling. They make us feel like we’re interacting with a real space. Yet they are still (perhaps always will be) poor substitutes. Though they may allow us to do things we can’t do in the real world,  nothing virtual is as engaging as a real world version of the same thing.

Sticky notes make ideas “real” but putting them in our hands. They invite us to get up and walk around the room, and move them in a physical space. We can literally pass an idea to a colleague or scrap one idea for another. This engages a different part of our brain, which both creates new connections we wouldn’t see otherwise, and also keeps us more alert than coffee during long research sessions.

Colorful, multidimensional, adaptive. While it might seem like sticky notes are only arrangeable in two dimensions, there are ways to add a third or fourth dimension. Color coding (yellow for problems, green for solutions, etc) and corner tagging (stars for insights, question marks for unverified data) are ways to add more depth to the picture.

decision sticky

Disposable, replicable, savable. Finally, sticky notes are just the right amount of disposable. You can take one off the board if it becomes irrelevant, but you have to actively decide to crumple it up and throw it in the garbage. You can hold onto one for later, or quickly re-write one that needs tweaking.

This quality gives us ownership and control over the ideas. We give them as much corporeal form as they need to support our understanding of the world, and then we translate them into another form: a conclusion, an action plan, a written report, whatever.

The sticky notes, having served their purpose, make their way to the recycling bin. A new pack is opened, we tackle a new problem, and our synthesis and analysis start again.

  1. Kartik Akileswaran January 30, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Nice post–it would be interesting to measure how sticky notes stack up against other methods. (Know of any studies on this?).

    I’m still not sure though that sticky notes avoid the pitfalls of brainstorming: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

    (William Duggan’s work on strategic intuition is also great on this).

    The process itself seems more important than the tool, and sticky notes don’t address that problem…


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