Step 5: Pink Stickies

In Step 4, you and your participants created dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of yellow sticky notes, each describing a different user or potential user of your product.

Every participant has a stack of their own yellow sticky notes. You have a large table set up as described at the end of Step 4:


Get all of the yellow sticky notes onto the easel sheets

The first step in the pink sticky exercise is to get all of the yellow stickies out of people’s hands and onto the easel sheets so the clustering can start. This should be a quick process—it should take no longer than a few minutes, if that.

There are a couple ways you can do this. The best way is to use some of the ‘old language’ terminology you identified earlier to create some basic zones on your easel sheets.

  • Select a few of the words that are currently used to describe users and transfer them onto pink sticky notes (do this while everyone is creating yellow stickies).
  • Don’t use all of the current terms for users; instead, select 4-6 of the most popular terms. Your primary objective is simply to help everyone get their yellow stickies onto the easel sheets so that the real categorization exercise can begin (and the real exercise won’t use the old terminology). So you don’t want everyone taking a lot of time to figure out the “right” place to initially put their yellow stickies. Creating too many initial categories will cause people to think too hard and take too long in what should be a quick process.
  • If you are doing yellow stickies for more than one UI (see discussion about this in the instructions for the previous step), create different areas for each UI. For example, if your participants created yellow stickies for Managers vs Employees, have them sort the Employee stickies onto easel sheets grouped on one side of a large table, and Manager stickies onto a different set of easel sheets on the other side of the table (or on a different table).

If it’s difficult to select just a few old terms for users, or if your participants get confused or stuck as they try to place their yellow stickies, remind them that the main goal is simply to get the yellow stickies out of their hands and onto the sheets so the real sorting can begin. If an initial set of categories or organization schema just doesn’t work, abandon it and ask everyone to simply put their yellow stickies out on the easel sheets neatly, and not worry about grouping them for now.

One reason to use the old terminology for this step is so that everyone can see that you are moving away from the old terms. As soon as the yellow stickies are all on the easel sheets, you will take away the old labels and tear them up. If participants have a hard time doing an initial sort using the old language, this is a great thing to mention—that the old language we’ve been using to describe users doesn’t turn out to be a great way to categorize all the users that were in our heads and are now on the sticky notes!

Logistical advice:

  • Stickies should not overlap and should not be stuck to each other
  • All of them should face in the same direction
  • Ask everyone to leave room at the top of the easel sheets, both because the yellow stickies will not adhere well to the top several inches of post-it style easel paper and to leave some room for the pink sticky notes.


Stop, look, and discuss for a few minutes

Have all the participants step back and take a look at the table. There will be an overwhelming number of yellow sticky notes and no clear organizational structure. Take a photo before you go any farther. Ask the participants what they see.

If you need to kick start the conversation:

  •  Just look at this! We took 20 minutes to do this and look how many users we could think of. This is a new way to see the challenge we are facing as an organization when we try to think about, or focus on, “users.”
  • Look at how many assumptions about our users we have as a group, and there are probably more people on the product team who aren’t participating in the workshop. They have additional assumptions about who are users are. These are all “ghosts” haunting our conversations about what our users actually want or need from our products.

Categorizing using “I Want … / I Need …” statements

For the moderator

This is the most challenging, and most rewarding, part of the workshop. You are helping your participants transition from thinking about users to thinking like users.

In the yellow sticky exercise, you asked everyone to describe users they could imagine using your product or service, and what situation, task, or problem each was trying to solve. In this exercise, you are asking everyone to think about what it’s like to be a user.  They will create statements that describe users’ reasons for using your product, in their own terms. They will then group the yellow stickies under these statements, and thus show themselves the value of thinking about users’ motivations and goals.

Participants will create pink stickies, each with a single goal statement that starts with ‘I want….’ or ‘I need…’ (or, alternatively, a question that users may have). Participants will work together to group yellow stickies under pink stickies. Using the words “I want” or “I need” first on every pink sticky forces participants to express user goals; the grouping process helps everyone see that the same goal often drives many different tasks, and can be shared by lots of users who may otherwise seem quite different.

If you used pink stickies with the old words for users in the previous step, remove them now (if you didn’t, that’s fine.) I like to tear them up dramatically. Make the point that these old words simply aren’t helpful. They don’t capture all the variety amongst our users, and they don’t help us make good decisions about how to design our product.

Slides and talking points


To create the yellow stickies, we described as many users as we could think of from our own perspective. We thought about them.

To create the pink stickies, we are going to put ourselves into our users’ shoes, and think in their terms. Instead of describing them objectively, we are going group them based on statements that start with the words “I want … “ or “I need ….” This forces us to look at things from their points of view, and think like them.

This is a very collaborative exercise. I’m going to expect everyone to be talking, creating new sticky notes, and moving sticky notes around.

For the moderator

To help participants understand the logistics rules of this exercise, I stand at one end of the table and model the behavior I’m looking for, while presenting the following talking points. Be active during this part of the presentation and model the behavior you are looking for.

Make sure everyone is paying attention. Now is the time to start enforcing that everyone needs to stay focused and participate.

  • Pick up any yellow sticky and read it out loud.  Ask everyone ‘what is the I want or I need we could write for this?’
  • Create the pink sticky, place it at the top of an easel sheet, and show everyone how you’d place the yellow sticky under it (and move other nearby stickies away, if they don’t belong)
  • Do this several times, and, if possible, quickly find a yellow sticky that belongs in one of the categories you’ve created, so participants can see that they will indeed start to find relationships.

Take a blank pink sticky note, crumple it up, and throw it on the floor to remind everyone that sticky notes aren’t etched in stone and can be rewritten as many time as necessary.

If your participants get hung up on ‘when do I use I want vs. I need,’ reassure them that it doesn’t really matter at this step in the process. Both have the force you to take the users’ perspective. “I want” and “I need” are both goal-related statements. They are somewhat different, in that “I need” usually refers to essential matters, like finances, health, and work. “I want” tends to be used for non-essential goals.

  • Suggest they use whichever one feels right to them, and that if there’s an important difference, it will get sorted out in upcoming steps.
  • Participants can also create pink stickies in the form of questions if that’s easier. For example, “How can I improve my performance?” works just as well as “I need information on how to improve my performance.”

Talking points

Let me show you how this works. I’ll take this yellow sticky (read it) and I’d create an ‘I want’ or ‘I need’ pink sticky note (give example). There is no real right or wrong answer here, except that you do have to start every pink sticky with the words “I want” or “I need.” And no, it doesn’t matter whether you use want or need. Use whichever feels right to you.

Now I’ll move some yellow sticky notes out of the way to make some room, so I start a column of yellow sticky notes under this pink sticky note.

Now that I’ve done that, I can look around for more yellow sticky notes that fit under this I want or I need statement, or I can pick up another random yellow sticky note and create an other pink sticky note.

Logistical suggestions:

  • Use the provided pens to write on the pink stickies, and write legibly.
  • Put pink stickies at the top of the easel sheets (if they are not post-it style easel sheets) or three inches from the top (if they are post-it style easel sheets).
  • The top row of sticky notes should all be pink, with yellow sticky notes in columns under each pink sticky note.
  • Do not overlap the yellow sticky notes or stick them to each other (unless they are describing the same user. In this case you can stack them).
  • Move un-related yellow sticky notes out of the way as you work.
  • Remember you can always add more easel sheets if you need more room.
  • It’s ok if we create a lot of pink stickies. We can always remove or change them as we go along, and we will take breaks to identify duplicate pink sticky notes.
  • If you get stuck or tired, you can move to another part of the table to start fresh.

Let’s try it! I’ll stop us in a few minutes for a check-in.

For the moderator

The participants will naturally break into little groups at various points around the table. Circulate and become part of each group for a little while to help them get the hang of the process.

After you see that some progress has been made (give everyone around 10 minutes to work), get everyone’s attention, and ask people to read off the pink stickies they’ve created so far, all the way across the table. Tell everyone to listen, so that they can move the stickies they are finding to the right areas, or combine categories if there are repeats.

  • They’ll notice that ‘hey, we have that over here too…’ Feel free to consolidate, move things around.
  • “What if a yellow sticky note can fit under more than one pink sticky?” Suggest that they make a copy of the yellow sticky note and put it in both columns.
  • “What if I think of another yellow sticky note?” Go ahead and create it!
  • Suggest moving or consolidating sticky notes: “sounds like we have some pink stickies related to needing general help over here and over here…I’d suggest moving them together.’
  • Point out pink stickies that may be a bit too broad to be helpful. For example:
    • I need information: Ask participants to be more specific. Suggest they create more than one pink sticky note to replace this one.
    • I want to talk to a real person: Again, ask for more specificity. This will become easier for participants as the exercise progresses.
    • Look for what I call puddles of yellow stickies: ten or more yellow sticky notes grouped under a single pink sticky note. Typically these puddles need to be split out under several pink sticky notes.
  • Let everyone continue. As you see people wander away from what they are doing, move them to another area of the table to put ‘fresh eyes’ somewhere else.


Pause every 20 minutes or so. It will be harder to get everyone’s attention, but it’s important to have everyone come up for air and align the work they around the table.

  • Ask everyone to silently read the pink sticky notes closest to them.
  • Then ask people to read the pink stickies out loud, and go all the way around the table until all of the pink stickies are read.
  • During the read-out, ask everyone to keep a mental note of any pink stickies that are highly related to, or even duplicates of, pink stickies they are standing near.
  • After the read-out, ask people whether they heard any pink stickies they feel should be grouped with their own pink stickies. Ask participants to move entire columns around to put related columns close to each other, or to combine columns.
  • Take photos right before or right after read-outs. These will be great to have for future presentations of the work you’ve done.

As you continue to float and assist the participants, be persnickety.

  • Pink stickies (I want / I need statements) should go at the top of the sheets (note: if you are using easel sheets that are themselves sticky / post-it style, your smaller sticky notes won’t stick well to the top three inches of each easel sheet. Worth noting if you plan to hang up the easel sheets eventually.)
  • Yellow stickies should be lined up under the appropriate pink sticky, not overlapping.
  • Don’t let people drop out of the process (see below)

step5-Pasted Graphic 6

This is the hardest part of the workshop. It’s a challenge to get everyone to dive in and participate and to get them to keep participating. You’ll find several types of people  in your workshops, and here are some ideas for how to help them stay engaged:

  • Happy clams: Some people love it and dive right in. If you see them working away by themselves, encourage them (or someone else) to partner up. As the exercise continues, try to team them up with more reluctant participants.
  • Hoverers: some will sort of lean over and look like they are reading, and move once in a while to a different spot. Suggest they create a pink sticky—read a yellow sticky together, and decide on a pink sticky, and then hand the hoverer a pink sticky pad and pen and ask them to create the category.
  • Anchor-droppers: “This is my spot and I’m not moving”: Some participants will be enthusiastic, and will want to completely ‘solve’ a particular section of the easel sheets. After they’ve made great progress in one area, suggest they move to a different spot to get some fresh perspective.
  • Rogues: these folks will create pink stickies that don’t start with I want or I need statements, like ‘women’ or ‘tech enthusiasts’. Your best bet is to ‘partner up’ with them and stop them for a minute to review the guidelines.
  • Literalists: Some will be uncomfortable because this is an inexact process. Remind them that these are just sticky notes, and that it’s a great idea to just dive in and start creating pink sticky notes, even if they find themselves creating a pink sticky for every yellow sticky. They’ll soon start finding categories that have multiple yellow stickies.
  • Non-participators: Some people will wander away from the exercise to play with their smartphone. It often works to quietly remind them how important their perspective is and suggest they ‘help’ someone who ‘needs’ them at the table.
  • Side-conversationalists: people will start to get ideas and want to talk to each other about non-task-related things. Remember that anyone doing something other than the task at hand gives everyone the impression that it’s not mandatory. Encourage them to get involved (and split them up!)

As the exercise progresses

The easel sheets will become more and more organized, with columns of yellow stickies organized under pink stickies.

Look for collections of yellow stickies that participants are avoiding, or just continuously pushing to the side:

  • Identify some of the most enthusiastic participants and ask them to tackle these difficult yellow stickies, and/or
  • Pick up all of these yellow stickies and give small piles of them out to each of the participants to ‘deal with,’ and/or
  • Create an easel sheet for yellow stickies that just don’t belong anywhere, but make sure that you assign a group of participants to review every yellow sticky on this sheet and make doubly sure it doesn’t have a home under a pink sticky.

Look for pink stickies with a lot of yellow stickies underneath them (I call these “puddles” of yellow stickies.) Ask the team to sub-sort them if at all possible–or ask a fresh set of people to attack the puddle. Generally, anytime I see more than 8-10 stickies in any category, I get someone new to look and see if they can split them out under more specific pink stickies. If you find many yellow stickies are actually describing the same user, stack them.

When you’re done

There’s no way to detect that a pink sticky exercise is officially ‘done.’ At some point, usually, after at least 1.5 – 2 hours of work, you’ll simply have to call it.

You and your participants will be exhausted. Have everyone get a chair and sit down.

  • Discuss how that process felt to them. Was it easy? Difficult? Why? (The answer will be ‘it was hard!’)
  • Congratulate them on a job well done. It is a hard process. We are trained to think about users all the time. This exercise made us think about users in a completely new way, by thinking like them.
  • The fact that the exercise is difficult actually proves how useful it is, and why your organization has been having a hard time keeping focus. You proved to yourselves that there were dozens or hundreds of users floating around in everyone’s minds; these are ghosts that haunt all of your conversations and decision-making. Through the pink sticky exercise, you grouped all of these users in a totally new way, and you did it together. That’s just plain hard to do.

A note on timing

I recommend conducting the alignment personas workshop over two mornings. I try to finish the pink sticky exercise by the end of day 1, but that’s not always possible.

You and your team have done a lot of work…and you’ll need all of the stickies for future steps.

  • If your meeting ends before you get to the next step, carefully stack the easel sheets so that the categories stay intact and you can place them on the table the next time you meet. This can be challenging because the sticky notes can start flying off. So be careful.
  • If you do complete the pink sticky exercise on the first day, that’s great. You will still have to carefully preserve the work that was done, and reconstruct the table the next day.
  • After you transcribe the pink stickies into a spreadsheet (the next step), you can stack the stickies for transcription.
  • Take photos of the completed easel sheets, just in case. Make sure you take a couple ‘wide shots’ of the entire set of sheets, and close-ups so that someone can transcribe what’s on each sticky note.


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