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One way sticky notes help you build better projects

Last month on my portfolio I wrote all about being a product designer at local startup Chirpify. One highlight of that case study is a post-up exercise that I held with the team just after I joined the company. That workshop has come up a few times since I posted the case study so I thought a more in depth look at how it worked would be fun. Enjoy!

Sticky notes are an experience designer’s best friends

My favorite part of being a user experience designer is facilitating between people with different roles. I love getting strategists, developers, designers, and managers together in a room, speaking the same language, and solving problems together. This post-up exercise is all about letting the team get their thoughts out and creating a safe space to discuss those thoughts.

So a post-up exercise is a design thinking workshop. A facilitator (you!) guides a group of participants through jotting ideas down on sticky notes and arranging the notes on a wall in ways that provide insight about a problem. There are a lot similar of exercises that UX-ers use in their work. Affinity mapping is one super common exercise that is the base of the post-up. In an affinity mapping exercise you focus on collecting similar ideas together into groups. We’ll also encounter bits of plus/deltas and general brainstorming techniques. I first experienced this exercise while working with the excellent team at XPLANE, a visual thinking consultancy here in Portland. They use plus/deltas as follow-up exercises to see how the team feels at the end of a project. I love to use this exercise as a way to realign a team around common goals and help focus everyone in the same direction.

Exercises like this have a lot of benefits for both your team and your project. Maybe my favorite feature of this post-up format is that it’s introvert friendly. Sometimes in open brainstorming sessions the most extroverted participants can take over (usually on accident!) because the conversation tends to move fast and free. Giving participants a chance to think before expressing to the rest of the team can help quieter teammates feel more comfortable speaking up. Another awesome benefit is you get pollination between teams that sometimes don’t otherwise talk to each other. Having developers hear what the sales team is thinking and worrying about—and vice-versa—is a great way to build empathy within your company. 

Okay, let’s get to it.

The makings of a great post-up

This post-up is, at the end of the day, a brainstorming and facilitation exercise. If you’re hosting, your role is to set expectations with your participants and guide them toward positive, productive, discussion. Once you go through the preliminary steps below of defining what you want to know and who you want to know it from schedule between 1 and 4 hours for your workshop. The amount of time will depend on how many participants and the size of the question you want to answer. Also, remember to set aside some time for yourself afterwards so you can digest all the gathered information and put together a report for the team of what you learned.

First things first: what do you want to know?

What do you want to know?When I ran this exercise at Chirpify I was brand new to the company and was kicking off a complete redesign of the product. The post-up acted as a way to get me the stakeholder interviews I needed plus let the team know what sorts of problems I would be solving with the new product design. For brand new projects I might use this exercise to build a collaborative understanding of what the end goals are so everyone knows what success looks like. If I’m working with a new client this exercise could help build trust that I am working in the business’s best interests and that I value the client’s domain knowledge and feedback.

Whatever your research end goal is, make sure you define the question you need an answer to before you start. Having that question in mind will help you set the stage properly with your participants and guide discussion in a meaningful way.

Let’s design an example post-up for a new client that we’ll be tackling a redesign for. We don’t know anything about the existing product beyond what’s in the marketing material so we might ask “what parts of the product are working well? what’s not working well? what’s missing?” I know, three questions. That’s okay! As long as the questions are closely related and get at the same research end goal—in this case, you getting an understanding of where things are at with the product—it’ll work out.

Gather your participants

Gather participantsNext, decide who on your team would benefit from this sort of exercise. This part is really flexible and will be determined by how many people are on your project and what sort of question you’re answering. That said, I would stick to between 3 and 10 participants. Any fewer and you’re really just having an interview with one person. More than 10 people would be doable, I think, but would need a very structured discussion period to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. I’ve found that around 8 people is great because you get a lot of different views but there aren’t too many voices all trying to talk at once.

For our example post-up we’ll invite 10 people, 8 of whom will be available to attend. We’ll pick people from a variety of roles within the client’s company and from a variety of management levels. Ideally participants for this example exercise would range from upper management, sales, product management, design, development, customer service… you get the picture! Our question (“what’s working? what’s not? what’s missing?”) is one that people in many roles will have strong opinions on.

Set the stage

So you have a question and people to answer it. Time to gather supplies, set up your workshop space, and get people thinking! Essential supplies for the post-up are pretty basic: sticky notes and a big wall to post sticky notes on. A whiteboard might be helpful, to write workshop instructions on or help focus discussion later. But really as long as you have stickies and a place to put ’em you’re golden.

Setting the stage

Setting up the space is also straightforward. Make sure you have enough seats and table spaces for every participant to sit and write comfortably. Conversely, make sure everyone can gather around the sticky note wall (or window!) without being too crowded. Take a moment to write an introduction on the white board, if you have one. Mine usually say something like “Welcome to post-up! Thanks for joining me. Here’s what we’re doing this afternoon…” along with a quick overview of the of the question at hand:

  • “+ What’s working in our product?”
  • “Δ What could be better?”
  • “? What’s missing?”

I’ll also jot down the schedule and some examples of helpful and unhelpful sticky notes. If I know what direction I want the exercise to go, like in our example post-up, I’ll prime the sticky note wall with some categories that participants can use to frame their thoughts. Our example exercise is all about framing this product for us, the new designers. With that in mind I know we’ll need information about how the application flows, how the user interface works, and marketing and sales efforts. Make sure all your participants know what type of information should go in each category.

Once the session starts, instruct your participants to write one thought per sticky note and annotate the sticky with a +/Δ or other category indicator. Then describe what makes a great sticky note. Helpful sticky notes are fairly precise and focus on one thing. Unhelpful sticky notes are overly broad or vague. While you can ask clarifying questions during discussion it’s always great when a sticky note doesn’t need extra context. Also be sure to remind everyone that there are no right answers here! You can jot down 3 notes or 30 and still participate in a meaningful way.

Here are some sample sticky notes for our example post-up:

Setting the stage: note examples

 

I recommend giving people between 8 and 15 minutes to think, depending on how much time the session is scheduled for. You really want the bulk of the session to be discussion. It’s better to cut off the note taking time than to run out of time to discuss!

Guide discussion

Okay, you’ve set the stage and now your participants are done writing notes. Time for my favorite portion of sessions like this one: discussion! There are a few different ways to get participants’ notes up on the walls and facilitate active discussion:

Option 1

Ask everyone to go ahead and organize their sticky notes on the wall. If there are similar notes, group them together in a loose affinity map. Once all the notes are up, take a moment to glance over everyone’s thoughts, then dive into asking questions. I’ve found it productive to read each note aloud, ask any clarifying questions, and give the writer a moment to offer any extra thoughts or insights. Then other participants can ask their questions or add comments and the group can help reorganize the note if necessary. This process will probably take the entire discussion time.

Option 2

Ask the participants to take turns posting their notes on the wall and reading them out loud. If their note already exists, add the new note as a “plus 1” to that thought. Other participants—and you!—should ask any clarifying questions during this process and offer organization suggestions. Once everyone has posted their notes you can facilitate open discussion to fill the rest of your time by noting patterns and surprises.

I personally lean toward option 1. Guiding the discussion after everyone has organized their notes is great for groups that are not used to visual thinking or design exercises in general. Because the facilitator holds the floor through much of the discussion it’s easier to keep thoughts on track and moving forward. Option 2 is great if you have a more outgoing group that is comfortable managing their own discussion threads.

Whichever way you facilitate, be sure to take notes! Besides needing notes so you can provide analysis later, there are often runaway discussion threads that need to be captured and shared after the session. I’ve found that getting team members from different departments together like this leads to lots of “I need this!” and “I can get that for you!” kinds of conversations that, while incredibly valuable, do not add to the substance of the discussion at hand. Make sure to send those thoughts around to the participants shortly after the session so they can be followed up on.

Give 40-120 minutes for discussion, depending on the size of the post-up wall. More notes? More time to discuss! I’ve found it helpful to take photos of the wall as you go, capturing particularly interesting notes or groupings. I also keep a colored pen with me to make my own notes on the stickies; sometimes notes really do need clarification which you can add during the discussion period.

Once discussion is quieting down you can wrap up by asking if there are any open thoughts or questions, then thank your participants for their time. And there you have it! That’s the basic structure I follow when using these post-up exercises in my own work. Hope some of it will be helpful to you!

How do you use workshops and exercises in your work?

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