It’s not design because you wrote it on a Post-It! (But it could help)

Ah, Post-It notes. Little candy-coloured squares that hold the key to solving every design problem ever!  Jokes aside, designers from every discipline seem to keep Post-Its close at hand, so in this blog post we are going to explore these pervasive sticky pieces of paper and their uses in UX.

History of the Post-It

Post-It notes had some pretty humble beginnings. The story goes that in 1968 while working at 3M, Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to develop a super strong adhesive. Serendipitously, he made the complete opposite – an adhesive that was ‘low-stick’, reusable, and pressure sensitive.

For six years, Silver promoted his invention internally, but no one took the bait to come up with an application (pun intended) until his colleague Art Fry had the idea of using the adhesive to keep his bookmark in place. Even the distinctive yellow colour was born out of necessity (that worthy catalyst of innovation!) as the lab next door only had scraps of, you guessed it, yellow paper. The product launch in 1977 was disappointing, so the company adopted a new strategy of giving out samples so that people could understand the true utility of the product. In 1980, ‘Post-It’ notes made their debut in US stores, followed by Europe and Canada a year later.

After two decades of loyal service, they were featured in the Humble Masterpieces exhibition at MoMA. Not bad for something that started as a mistake!

Uses in UX

So why is it post-it notes are a crucial part of an interaction designer’s toolkit?

  1. They facilitate collaboration. Post-It notes are sufficiently lightweight and low-risk to encourage people to jot down their ideas.
  2. Post-Its are great for activities like card sorting.
  3. They can be moved around with ease – ideal for grouping, sorting, rearranging, finding themes… you name it.
  4. Concision – their tiny size means the key idea is pretty much all that fits!
  5. Available in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colour, post-it notes can be used to create hierarchy, show themes, or denote relationships.
  6. They are fun! There is something inherently enjoyable about their colourful, low-fi craftiness.

Post-It usage tips

So what are some key things to bear in mind when working with Post-Its?

  1. Stick to one idea per Post-It. This will really assist when it comes to sorting and categorizing – it’s pretty challenging to sort a note with two disparate ideas on it. If this does happen, never fear! The simplicity of Post-Its means you can just rewrite them separately.
  2. Give participants thick-tipped markers – Sharpies are ideal. It is challenging for even the micro writers among us (guilty) to violate the one-idea-per-Post-It rule when markers are in play.
  3. Colour coding is your best friend – pick a new colour for emerging ideas, headings, and topics.
  4. Be sure to photograph your Post-It output at various stages. Capturing/archiving is one of the challenges with Post-Its, and is best done when fresh in the mind.
  5. Work on rolls of brown paper or large flip pad sheets that can be taken down and put back up with ease. We like to use foam core boards at Usability Matters, so work can be moved around as needed.

It seems that the Post-It has become an almost ubiquitous trope in the design world. I for one swore off them for a while after a particularly Post-It laden project!

Much like any other tool in a designers’ toolkit, the important thing is knowing when to whip them out and when to refrain.

While Post-It notes are not a substitute for integrated research, process, thoughtfulness and insight, they are a wonderful, flexible and inexpensive aid. Plus, they allow you to play spot the designer in the stationery store!