A sticky note is a small rectangular piece of paper that we can stick on a wall, and move around. It has three key characteristics - colour, size, and stickiness. And with just these three, they are a key tool of modern product, design and business strategy. 

Our toxic relationship with sticky notes.

What is a sticky note? 

A sticky note is a small rectangular piece of paper that we can stick on a wall, and move around. It has three key characteristics - colour, size, and stickiness. And with just these three, they are a key tool of modern product, design and business strategy. 

What makes sticky notes special?

We as species are visual thinkers - half of the human brain is devoted directly or indirectly to vision (source). In fact, the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. (source, source)

Writing something down on a sticky note gives us the ability to quickly capture a new piece of data or information we’ve gathered from the universe - whether it's something a user said, an interesting idea we came across, or a simple reminder like “do laundry”.

Their three characteristics help us organize this misplaced piece of data that we’ve gathered. We organize this information naturally, like “do laundry”, goes right next to “pick up groceries”, or “pay the phone bill” - which goes into a list of “weekly chores”, that we’ll have to complete.

The larger the set of information we’re working to process, the more dimensions we need to differentiate, and organize this data. 

Color: If you’ve just completed one user interview, you might want to take down everything positive they said on a green sticky note, everything negative on a red one, and everything neutral on a yellow one.

Size: And if you go on and do another five of them, you might need a slightly larger sticky note to label the ones inside into more specific categories like “pain points”, or “goals”, or “motivations”.

Stickiness: Finally, if you’ve done another twenty, you might need to reorganize the lists from earlier into more specific categories such as “pain points while doing exercise”, and “motivations for going to the gym”, so their stickiness makes it possible to reorganize that data.

Why do we love them so much?

In addition to giving us the ability to organize our own findings, sticky notes help gather data others have observed, and collectively make sense of the larger set of observations. 

They make it possible for people from across functions - design, business, customer support and engineering to come together and share what they have observed with each other. And build a shared understanding of customer needs by organizing these notes on a customer journey map, or align on strategic goals like “where do we see ourselves in five years”. 

This ability to visually collaborate while categorizing new information explains their omnipresence product management, design and business strategy.

What makes our relationship with sticky notes toxic?

After every design workshop, there’s always a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in everyone who was there. But leave this room, and you’ll find it hard to communicate what was actually accomplished. Was it all just a gimmick?

The first problem that makes our relationship with sticky notes toxic is that there is no easy way to communicate their value to anyone who wasn’t in the room. They just have to trust you on what you’ve figured out. It’s like telling your spouse that you’ve got the chores under control - they’ll believe it when they’re done.

The second problem is that the more complex, or nuanced the set of data - the more space you’ll need to make sense of it. No matter how large the room, and how big the walls, if you’ve got a lot of data, you’re going to run out of space. 

So you’re going to need a lot of A1 papers to segment that data into smaller questions, analyse it, and replace it with a fresh sheet when you move to the next piece. Each one of these used papers are going into a pile, and all you’ll have left of them is a picture.

Finally, when a month later you want to revisit your competitive landscape - you’ll have to call up Judy who summarized those findings to send them over, and rework how you came up with that plan in the first place.

In essence, despite all their benefits, their utility is limited by space, lost in storage and forgotten with time, and their value is hard to communicate.

How might we fix our relationship?

Business people in a meeting

We love sticky notes because they help us collectively organize and make sense of new observations, and align on our actions accordingly. But there’s no easy way to externally communicate the insights we derive.

If our goal is to drive execution based on the insights we derive by analysing the data we gather, and we assume that all stakeholders are rational actors - then we can reframe the problem with sticky notes as such:

Using sticky notes disconnects the evidence (or the data) from the insight, making execution rely purely on the trust of the person sharing their insight, and not on the data that supports it. 

Every single journey map, or persona that ever gets created is based on a set of real-world observations made by someone - and the reason those insights get questioned or ideas get roadblocked is in the lack of evidence that can be used to back them. 

Therefore all we have to do is find a way to connect data to the insights and ideas we think will work, and we’ll find the roadblocks to innovation disappear. Unfortunately, it also means we’ve got to find a better solution than sticky notes.

And that is one of the premises we’ve used in architecting epiphany. Our goal is to empower designers to innovate boldly, and have the data to back their insights. We’re currently in a closed beta, and looking to work with our fellow creatives as we shape the product further.

Let us know if you’re keen to join by requesting access over here.

Epiphany is a collaborative discovery platform for product teams. It helps analyze qualitative data from user research, to find customer insights that can drive the product roadmap.

About me: I’m Arnav, co-founder@Epiphany you can reach me over here.

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