Guest post by Casey Bettridge
What is it about small, brightly coloured, adhesive pieces of paper that is so alluring? These sticky idea squares are a ubiquitous symbol of inspiration and collaboration, guaranteed to be found at your local innovation hub or design studio. With the traditional pen and paper approach, physical Post-it notes still come out on top over digital substitutes. My first design sprint here at REAP has just wrapped up, investigating the message in the Post-it note medium.
It began with the task of deciding on a research question. This meant exploring the technology in the lab combined with my own experiences and interests to think of desirable, feasible, and viable new uses. Even before visiting the Felt Lab, I had a couple of ideas I wanted to explore.
A bit about me: I graduated this spring with a Bachelor of Knowledge Integration degree with a Computer Science minor from the University of Waterloo. I spent my 3rd year abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark where I had the opportunity to work as a user experience intern at a digital design agency. I also interned part-time during my fourth year at a strategic design firm in Kitchener. Both internships involved the use of an endless amount of Post-it notes. I became curious about the medium and its pervasiveness in design culture.
If you’re like me, you were excited when you discovered a tool that imitated Post-it notes virtually, only to be disappointed with the experience. Typing and dragging just wasn’t as satisfying as writing and sticking. What is it about holding the physical object in your hand and arranging it on a wall that aides the design process? Instead of a 2D version of a Post-it on a screen, I wondered how you could preserve the tactile quality of Post-its that make them so accessible, but still digitize the result for easy sharing and collaboration. This was my research question, and I began to brainstorm different ways to configure devices to accomplish this.
I brought these ideas to my supervisor, who saw potential and provided suggestions on existing research I should read. When she saw the different devices in my design, she said “The simpler, the better”. I kept this in mind as I toyed with different configurations.
At this point, I knew I needed to achieve two things: capture the contents of a Post-it, and then capture the placement location on the wall. The first task could easily be done using a smartphone camera. My idea to capture the placement of the Post-it involved setting up a Microsoft Kinect camera on a wall. The Kinect camera is a motion sensing input device originally used for gesture control in game play. The Kinect camera would be able to sense the x,y position of a Post-it when it is placed on the wall. It would store this information along with the photo of the square, and allow it to replicate the physical board of stickies.
Early ideation had me thinking of a solution that was somewhere in the space of Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) and productivity apps. Scanning the market for similar solutions, I came across the Post-it Plus app developed by 3M, which had been nominated for a Webby 2015 award. This configuration was much simpler than what I had come up with, with the ability to simply take a picture and render the stickies on an digital interactive “board”. At this point I became discouraged. If a company with resources like 3M – the creator of Post-its – had already released a solution to this problem, then what was I doing trying to solve it again?
I gloomily emailed my supervisor, and anticipated a dead end. I was surprised by her response. She said that the fact that there was an existing app didn’t mean the problem was completely solved. It meant that there was value in the problem I was exploring, and 3M created one solution which might have many possible solutions. If my research could help guide the development of something new, or even find a way to make one feature better, it could still be a meaningful investigation.
Glad to be back on track, I needed to change the focus of my study and use the Post-it Plus app to help inform my research rather than derail it. But now I needed a new direction to rephrase my research question. The inspiration for this new focus came from one of the lunch-and-learn presentations that happen every other Friday at the Felt Lab in the Quarry Integrated Communications building in St. Jacobs.
This particular presentation was called Love your Goals, Not the Technology. The speaker was Jeff Brum, a technical sales consultant at Mechdyne Corporation an international company that specializes in VR and 3D technologies. Jeff gave a presentation advising entrepreneurs to prioritize value to end users over creating products ‘just because you can’. You need to ask yourself, “so what?”. If you can use virtual reality to simulate a car, so what? Well, this technology can be used to test drivers’ reactions without the risk of actual injury. This is extremely valuable and opens up avenues for new research. Applying this to my own endeavor, I asked myself, if it’s possible to digitize Post-its, so what? What value will this add, and to whom?
This is how my focus evolved from an app to an ethnographic study – to explore market desirability. In order to create a tool that was going to be useful to Post-it users, I needed to get a sense of the process and context around Post-its as a means of achieving broader goals. So I designed a one-hour ethnographic study with three objectives. First, to test the current Post-it Plus app for limitations. It’s a handy prototype for one set of design criteria, built and ready for download. My next objective was to see how Post-its fit into a broader workflow of designers. Lastly, to investigate how the knowledge from a Post-it session is captured, stored, and distributed. I contacted some designers in my personal network and was given access to designers in REAP’s network too. I scheduled two sessions and was ready to test participant engagement.
My favourite experience from this sprint was designing and facilitating the study. This was a brand new task for me and before my first facilitation began, I was shaking with nerves! I discovered the importance of acting as a guide during the session without influencing participants’ answers. Luckily, I had an interviewing expert to help me tailor my questioning to pull out information while remaining unbiased. Executive member of REAP and associate professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Jill Tomasson Goodwin gave me advice that let me walk into the ethnographic study with confidence. The sessions went well, but with a lot of areas of improvement that I now know to work on.
I’ve created a report to communicate my findings, which will soon be available to view. To summarize, different Post-it activities have a variety of characteristics. The three attributes I looked at were the abstractness of the data (definite like site headings; abstract like opinions or ideas), the complexity of the structure (simple like linear timelines; complex like matrices or multi-tiered clusters), and the shared domain knowledge (common industry, discipline, specialist language, etc.) of the participants and those understanding or transforming the results. This is the grounds for a conceptual framework I developed to understand how the medium is used and to explore if it should be digitized. The first of my two final recommendations is to extend the functionality of the app for a specific activity to include better annotation and optical character recognition (OCR). This option preserves the traditional use of Post-it notes. The other option I recommended was honing in on a smaller set of users to design a system of connected devices that focuses more on real-time collaboration and complete digitization.
With the support and network available to me at REAP, I’ve experienced a complete iteration of discovery from start to finish. I’ve played the role of entrepreneur, designer, facilitator, and analyst. My research question morphed and evolved along the way, as did my approach. Staying open to change meant not getting discouraged when it was not obvious what to do next. My first sprint over, I feel equipped to tackle my future entrepreneurial endeavors with an improved method and broader network. The short research sprint as a method shares parallels with the Post-it note as a medium. Both provide an avenue to explore an idea with spontaneity and collaboration, to bring your assumptions out into the open, and rearrange as you go.