The 5 Why's Behind Sticky Notes in Design Thinking. And How to Best Use Them.

Written by Lauren Ralston on May 17, 2023

Sticky notes do a thankless job really. They sit, untouched in the corner of your desk left behind by a former coworker waiting for the day they may hold your coffee order. But really, they provide so much more value than that.

In Design Thinking, Design Sprints, Roadmapping and the like, sticky notes have surfaced as a key tool to involve team members, gain real insights, and clarify the main problems and solutions at hand. Here's the why behind the "can't do without" sticky note exercise our team uses during Design Sprints.

Five reasons we use sticky notes in design thinking

1. Control

Use standard sticky notes to control the amount of words one can legibly fit on the 3x3" paper. This forces mindfulness in selecting the right words to convey what team members mean, boiling it down to the root of their point. This concise description helps create clear communication amongst team members.

2. Collaboration

Sticky notes foster collaboration. It forces us to come out of our confined (or remote) workspace and involve ourselves in the group activity. Every team member contributes, establishing an environment where diversity as well as unity thrive.

3. Cluster

It is very easy to move, rearrange, and group sticky notes on a board to visually identify themes. This activity helps identify meaningful patterns and forms logical associations.

4. Conversation

Sticky notes ensure that every team member’s voice is heard and valued. This low pressure activity enables everyone to pitch in their ideas and thoughts. It is easier to overcome your hesitation, write ideas, and put them on the wall instead of speaking them publicly, and perhaps more formally, in front of your team members.

5. Checklist

At the end of the activity, priorities can be clearly identified on the board. Teams can organize sticky notes in order of priority and assign responsibility of each task to the appropriate team member to ensure the work is carried out after the sticky note exercise.

The Sailboat Exercise (yes, it involves sticky notes)

How to run The Sailboat Exercise

While sticky notes may seem elementary, everyone from our leadership team to developers have adopted sticky note exercises to get away from the stuffy, formal leadership meetings we are all too familiar with.

The sailboat exercise is a simple retrospective activity for identifying what your anchors are they are preventing you from moving forward and what is pushing you forward, or the the wind in your sails. To successfully execute this, follow these five steps.

  1. Draw a sailboat: Draw a simple sailboat on a whiteboard or piece of paper. Include the boat, the water line, and an anchor.
  2. Identify the anchor: Ask the team to identify the anchor, which represents the things that are holding the team back or slowing them down. Write these things as words or phrases on a sticky note and attach it to the bottom section of the picture (in the water as if it is an anchor).
  3. Discuss the winds: Ask the team to discuss the winds that are propelling them forward. These are the things that are driving the team and moving them closer to their goals. Write these as words or phrases on sticky notes and attach them to the top sectionof the picture.
  4. Discuss the overall picture: Once everything is mapped out, ask the team to discuss the overall picture. What is the team's current situation? What can they do to address the anchors? How can they harness the winds?
  5. Action planning: Based on the discussions, create an action plan to address the anchors and leverage the winds. Make sure to identify specific action items and assign them to team members with clear timelines.

Sticky Noting as a Remote Team with Figma

Our team’s software of choice is Figma, a collaborative interface design tool that allows our team to work simultaneously from different locations. The FigJam feature is ideal for remote teams to "jam" together while brainstorming. Check out our top features to run a collaborative workshop using the sticky note strategy.


This tool is great for visualizing concepts and organizing inspiration. In this exercise, your team groups images inspired by a specific prompt and comes up with keywords that highlight emerging themes.

Crazy 8s

Your team has eight minutes to come up with eight ideas for solving a given problem. For example, you might prompt exploration with the question, “how might we make this experience delightful for our users?” The goal is to quickly generate ideas without getting too caught up in details or practical implementation. At the end of eight minutes, each teammate shares their ideas and discusses the ones they’d like to explore further.


This template encourages each participant to individually come up with as many ideas as possible. At the end of the session, the group comes back together to deliberate and identify common themes.

Or create your own template! Figma offers customization of all features so your team can get the most out of it.

Happy sticky noting!