The power of a Post-it

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For what is ostensibly a sticky piece of paper, the analogue Post-it note has become one of the most valuable tools in our team’s digital revolution. Invented by accident in 1968, Dr Spencer Silver labelled his creation a “solution without a problem”. Well, this is the 21st century Dr Silver and we have plenty of problems!

Despite living in “The Future”, no one has really managed to improve upon the pen & Post-it. Once the patent expired competitors joined the market but finding nothing to improve on, they tried to distinguish themselves with different shapes, colours and lower prices (in my opinionated view, having a dog shaped sticky note only makes it harder to write on!)  almost always to the detriment of what makes a sticky note great.

Microsoft tried  to update the concept when they brought Sticky Notes to Windows Vista, you could scatter coloured skeuomorphic squares around your desktop and get to them with a deft click of the “Show desktop” button. Its downfall was that they’d essentially made yet another note taking tool for an operating system that comes with a program called Notepad.

They’d not figured that the value in Post-it notes comes not only from their ability to remember things for you but that they can be ordered and combined to spot patterns, track progress etc.

I’m part of the Digital Development Team in the council, a small team within the IT department that builds websites for council teams and web apps that support day-to-day council processes. In recent times, due to funding & staffing cuts we have seen a new role emerge for our team, one where we help other teams adapt their working practices to the new council landscape.

To that end we’ve been modernising our own team too by implementing a whole heap of User Experience (UX) and Agile goodness.

UX and Agile are Post-it intensive processes. All that info gathering, analysis and hypothesising need Post-Its by the bucket load and so do Kanban boards.

Collation & analysis

By gathering all of our questions and answers on post it notes, we can go from a collection of notes from interviews like this:

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To themed problems, emotions and potential features like this:

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This would be incredibly hard to do with anything other than a re-stickable paper note and is incredibly powerful for spotting patterns.

Anonymity is honesty

Sticky notes are also a great way to remove ownership of ideas, thoughts and opinions. Suppose we hand each person in the room a pad of notes and a Sharpie then ask them to write down all of their assumptions around a problem or process such as “I need to be in Edinburgh for tomorrow evening, sort my travel arrangements”.

Their Post-Its are all collected into a communal pool on a wall or massive piece of paper. Knowing that their thoughts are anonymous amongst many others is going to lead to super open and honest feedback. Even better is that because they’ve got limited space, you know their points will be considered and concise. Try this next time you’re with your team and be amazed at the wealth of information you receive.

Users can tell you a story

UX is all about finding out how a business works and a great way to do that is through the use of User Journeys. You get together with as many members of staff from the business as possible and have them walk you through a day-to-day scenario. We recently did one for WDU which covered the creation of a learning course from initial customer idea all the way through to getting feedback on the new course. You give the staff Post-its and Sharpies and go through each step having them write down what happens, who’s involved, any potential issues, documents produced etc and it comes out looking something like this:

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From this process, not only do we gain insight into their business but they’re forced to step back and analyse how they’re doing things, often parts of the team won’t even realise what goes on in earlier stages! I’d argue that’s more powerful than what’s written on the Post-Its.

Manage your workflow

Kanban, Post-it stylie!

Lastly, you can use post-it notes on a Kanban board to manage your team workload – write down jobs that need doing and throw them up on the board, this is great because it’s transparency at its finest. Anyone in your building can come up and see what you’ve got next, what you’re working on now and what you’ve achieved. So that keeps your boss happy and gives you an easy way to show people that you’re just a bit too busy to move the download link a half inch to the right.

Post-policing world

I was struggling to find a good way to end this post and it’s taken me three days to remember that this clip exists. A young man parks in a disabled zone and the retribution that follows appears to be condoned by the parking warden. So I’ll leave you with a video and hopefully you’ll start thinking about what you can change with a sticky piece of paper.

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