Step 4: Yellow Stickies

I call this step “Yellow Stickies” because I always use yellow sticky notes for this step. You can use a different color if you must. But make sure you choose a light color so they are easy to read.

In Step 3, your participants listed as many words for “user” as they could think of.  These should be written on an easel sheet or a whiteboard so that both the list of words and your slides are visible at the same time.

You will distribute pads of sticky notes and pens to all of your participants. Use identical sticky notes for everyone. I also recommend distributing identical pens.

Require that all participants—no exceptions!—do the yellow sticky exercise.

For the moderator

Before the workshop

  • Make sure you understand the example sticky notes that are on the instruction slides so you can address questions if you need to.
  • Optional: create 2-4 yellow stickies appropriate to the current project as examples you can read to the participants.

Distribute materials

  • A stack of 3X3 yellow sticky notes. Around 1/3 of a pad per person usually works well. Everyone should get the same color and the same size. If possible, purchase 3” square yellow stickies for this, larger sticky notes do not work well. Do not buy sticky notes designed for dispensers. These have sticky backs that alternate from top to bottom (you can pull these pads apart and they look like an accordion). They’re a pain.
  • Matching pens. I recommend black felt tips, like Ultra Fine Flairs.

Make sure instructions and words for users are on display while participants are writing

  • Project the instruction slide, including example sticky notes.
  • Make sure the list of words for users (from Step 3) is prominently displayed on a white board or on a sheet of easel paper.

Introduce the exercise

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I’ve given each of you a stack of yellow sticky notes and matching pens. We’re all using the same sticky notes and the same pens so that all of our yellow stickies will look the same.  We’re going to take the next 20 minutes to describe as many users as we can think of, one user per sticky note.

First things first: the basic rules.

  • Make sure your pad of sticky notes is right side up, so that the sticky part is at the top of the back of the sticky note.
  • Everyone do your best to write legibly.
  • As you finish each sticky note, create a pile of the notes. After we’re finished, we will clear the tables, put out big sheets of paper, and then spread out the sticky notes. So a little stack is the best way to store them as you work.

If our product was a building…

For this exercise, imagine you are standing on a hill. Pretend that the product (or website, or service) we are working on is a building in front of you, like the one on the slide.

Now imagine looking down and seeing all the people who are coming to the building we want to create. These are all the users you can imagine using our product.  You are looking from very high up, so you can’t see lots of details. But that’s ok. All you need to do is write down very basic descriptions of each person and why they are approaching our new building. For 20 minutes, you are going to describe as many of these people as you can, one per sticky note.

Let’s look at some examples. These are some yellow stickies created during a workshop at a startup that was working on a ‘do yoga at home’ website many years ago.

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Notice that these yellow stickies don’t contain a lot of details. There are no ages or income ranges, for example. In the yoga at home example, these details didn’t matter, at least not for this exercise. Even though there aren’t a lot of details, each sticky note captures who the person is, and why they are ‘showing up’ at the building. Some stickies might describe a reason for a first visit, another for a 100th visit to the site.

Here’s another example, this time for business-to-business software. (As the moderator, you can choose whether to show both example slides or just one.)

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The primary goal of this yellow stickies exercise is to give everyone in this room a chance to get all the users each of us can think of out of our brains and onto sticky notes. This isn’t about being right or wrong.

The goal is to describe all of the people you can imagine coming to use our (software/site/application/service) and why. The examples on the slide are examples of the format we are looking for, and that’s all. You’re creating new sticky notes to describe a person and a situation, in the same way that these examples describe a person and a situation for the projects listed.

On each sticky note,  include:

  • a very brief description of who the person is (for example, a manager, or a small business owner, or a ballerina, or a teacher, etc), plus
  • a short description of what they are trying to do, or struggling with, when they use the software/site/application/service that we are designing or redesigning.

If you are stuck, use one of the words for users that we just created as the short description of the person, and add the short description of a goal or task or problem that person may have to complete the sticky note. For example:

  • A small business owner who is trying to decide which accounting software to buy
  • A ballerina who is researching what it would take to open her own dance studio
  • A knowledge worker who has to enter his expenses for the first time

Examples of what you do NOT want on sticky notes:

  • Women aged 24-36 (broad descriptions of groups, or segments, of people)
  • Engineers (description of a role without any specific context)

You might feel like it will take much longer than 20 minutes to describe all the users you can think of, but most of the time 20 minutes is enough. We’re going to give it a try.

For the moderator

Create a few yellow stickies relevant to the current project in advance and share them, or create a few yellow stickies as a group. You can ask for ideas for yellow sticky notes, and then ask each person who calls one out to write the sticky note. Sometimes hearing how easy it is helps everyone get started.

If your product has more than one interface

Your product may have more than one high-level category of users, each with their own user experience. For example, in the case of a performance review systems, it’s a safe bet that there will be an ‘employee’ interface and a ‘manager’ interface. You can also imagine working on an online presentation system: there would be distinct interfaces for Presenters, Audience Members, and perhaps Moderators.

The best approach is to treat each user interface as its own sub-product, with its own set of measurable business goals (and possibly brand and customer experience goals).

You can either:

  • Do the yellow sticky notes for both (or all) user groups during the same session (ask everyone to create stickies for both types of users)
  • Do the yellow sticky notes for one set of users at a time (‘let’s just do stickies for the Employees, and we’ll do them for Managers later.’)

If the team (and therefore the number of workshop participants) is small, it often works to do both at the same time. If not, there may be different people you want to involve in the exercise for each type of user. You’ll have to use your best judgment on this.

If you do one sticky note session for more than one interface, ask your participants to keep the stickies for each interface in a separate pile.

During the exercise

  • If people seem to be slowing down during the 20 minutes, suggest they look at the list of words for users to spur some ideas.
  • Let people know when there are 5 minutes, then one minute left. As time runs out, ask everyone to finish their final sticky note before you officially end the exercise.

At the end of 20 minutes

  • As you near the 20-minute mark, ask participants to stack their own sticky notes.  Some will have them spread out.
  • It’s time to get the table and room cleared for the next step. Ask the participants to help.

Prepare the room for Step 5: Pink Stickies

  • Ask everyone to put their stacks of yellow stickies in a safe place.
  • Gather all the black pens and leftover blank yellow sticky notes.’
  • Ask everyone to move all of their belongings onto the chairs, and move the chairs to the periphery of the room to get them out of the way.
  • The tables should be pushed together to make one large surface that has plenty of room for participants to stand and work all the way around it (if possible).
  • As much as possible, remove any large items from the table (like speakerphones).
  • Once the major moving is done, consider taking a short break. Let participants know that you are going to need complete access to the table during the break, and they should leave their stacks of sticky notes in the room (but not on the big table)

Get the table ready for the pink sticky exercise

Over the years, I have conducted the pink sticky note exercise by posting large sheets of paper on the walls or using the table. Tables generally work better, because the sticky notes are far less likely to fall off.

Cover the surface of the table with easel sheets.

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If you are using sticky-note style easel sheets, use a black marker to draw a line around 3 inches from the top of the sheets:

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This doesn’t have to be pretty. You’re going to tell everyone not to put any yellow or pink sticky notes above this line. Sticky-note style easel pads are designed to pull apart at the top; small sticky notes don’t stick well in this area.

Finally, scatter some pads of blank yellow and pink sticky notes, and the black pens the participants used for the yellow stickies, in the middle of the table. If there’s no room for these supplies (if they’d end up on top of the easel sheets), wait to put these out until after the participants put their yellow sticky notes out on the easel sheets (during the first part of Step 5.)

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