I’m starting to see a slightly disturbing trend in our interactions with senior leadership teams, which I’m calling sticky note fatigue.

Andy Budd
Andy Budd
2 weeks ago

We UX strategists love our sticky notes, and will use every opportunity to bust open a new pad and start visualising our discussions. It’s how we make sense of complex problems, and is a key part of abductive thinking.

This used to be a fairly unusual approach, with exec teams loving the novelty of design games and co-creation exercises. But the popularity of design thinking has seen more traditional consultancies adopt these tools, often fairly haphazardly.

Not another sticky note...

We’ve started to see increasing pushback when we pull out the sharpies and sticky notes. There’s a growing sense of fatigue. “Not another sticky note exercise!” They’ve done a bunch of these exercises with other consultancies, but things haven’t changed. They want answers rather than more questions. They want agencies who will tell them what to do, rather than going over the same well-trodden ground.

A big part of the problem is framing. If the people around the table expect to see an immediate benefit from such exercises, they are likely to be disappointed when it doesn’t provide them with new insights or information.

In truth, these exercises are rarely for the benefit of the client—at least not immediately. Instead they are a means for design teams to understand the problem and present it back to the client in order to build consensus. “This is the problem you have, these are the challenges we all agree you face, and this is where we’re going to devote our efforts.” In this situation the agency is the immediate beneficiary. The client only benefits once synthesis has happened.

Another challenge is confusing the map for the territory, or in this case the activity for the insights. Not all sticky note exercises are created equal. It’s not the sticky notes themselves to blame, but the people who use them badly.

Sticky notes upon sticky notes!

The fog of knowledge

This problem is compounded by what I’ve started to call the fog of knowledge. The fog of knowledge is made up of two component parts. First, as we gain more and more experience as practitioners, knowledge that was once explicit becomes tacit. It becomes increasingly difficult to communicate what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, because the answers will become clear further down the line. This is another key part of abductive thinking. But this fuzziness and unwillingness to commit can be incredibly frustrating to the type of inductive or deductive thinkers that dominate the boardroom.

At the same time, UX designers have an infuriating habit of asking lots of questions without providing too many answers. So we’ll use the ‘five whys’ to get to the bottom of the problem. We’ll constantly look to the next biggest context to understand the problem we’re solving; understand the room to design the chair; understanding the house to design the room.

The longer we’ve been doing this work, the further we tend to zoom out. But for the client who is expecting you to design a chair, talking about town planning can feel like a frustrating waste of time.

At some point you can zoom out too far to be helpful, and rather than solving the problem, you’re left with fear, uncertainty and doubt. Having perfect information seems like a good idea. Yet we struggle under the weight of too much information, not knowing what to prioritise and when. Too much information quickly becomes an inhibitor to progress. This is the fog of knowledge.

At some point you need to stop asking questions and running sticky note exercises. Sometimes you just need to start designing the damned thing. If there’s one lesson we can take from Lean UX it’s this; you can often learn more from a bad first prototype than you can from any number of sticky note exercises.


What do you think about sticky note fatigue and how do you deal with the fog of knowledge? We’d love to hear from you - tweet us @andybudd and @clearleft