09 Aug 2013 by Johanna Dietrich
An alternative to post-it notes and sharpies: Using butcher paper and pre-printed sticky labels for workshop facilitation and analysis

There have historically been three sure things in IA – post-it notes, sharpies and the Polar Bear Book. We’ve recently expanded our IA toolkit to include a roll of butcher paper and a stock of Avery mailing labels. Having used these somewhat unconventional supplies several times over the last few months, we are pleased with the results.

The advantages are many:

  • Convenience. You can print card labels or interview notes and observations directly from your computer to the Avery labels instead of writing down your ideas by hand. This saves both time and energy, and is a lot easier to read!
  • Volume and Type of Printing. You can more easily print large volumes of data; use standard mailing labels (Avery #48160) for a more traditional card sort or the full sheet labels (Avery #05165) to accommodate interview notes of varying lengths.
  • Portability. When used on wax paper or butcher paper, Avery labels function just as sticky notes do on a wall or paper, but will stick for longer. This means that you can roll up the paper and transport it back to the office for analysis without concern that the sticky notes will fall off or stick to something else and obscure the groupings.
  • Flexibility. You can change your mind over and over again. Avery labels can be grouped, ungrouped, moved, removed and grouped many times without losing stickiness.

We’ve found that the combination of butcher paper and Avery labels works best in fairly specific situations, although we’d be interesting in hearing if you have successes in other applications.

Situation 1: Large volume of data; small group of stakeholders.

We printed 200 metadata topics onto standard mailing labels for a workshop on grouping the terms. We used 16-inch lengths of wax paper as the foundations on which the stakeholders (approximately five people) grouped similar terms together and permanent marker to label the groups directly on the wax paper (although you could use additional blank labels as well). We transported the wax paper sheets back to the office in a laptop bag and split up the transcription work.

Wax Paper Sheets

Situation 2: Small data set; large group of stakeholders.

Often we hold workshops during which a group of stakeholders will work through activities designed to elicit conversations about organizational structures or processes. We recently printed a set of 24 high-level concepts onto medium-sized Avery labels (#05392) for use in a more traditional facilitated card sort. Large pieces of butcher paper covered the tabletops as participants stuck the labels together into logical groups. They labelled the groups using sticky notes and additional labels. As in the previous example, we were easily able to transport the groups’ findings to the office for analysis.

Situation 3: Internal analysis.

We often gather large volumes of data using various consultative methods, including interviews, and need to collect them in one place to facilitate analysis by several members of our team. We’ve traditionally used handwritten sticky notes on the wall or whiteboard as a way to collect findings. Once again, however, our new go-to approach includes using butcher paper and Avery labels.

Here are the specifics: Gather electronic observations (interview or meeting notes, etc.) and consolidate into a Word document set to two columns with expanded margins. Separate each observation from the next with a couple of extra paragraph breaks. Feel free to include some contextual information that might be helpful in understanding the comment or quote. Underline the key points if you think that would be helpful. Don’t worry that they observations aren’t all the same length – you will be cutting the labels based on the amount of information printed on each one.

When you’re ready, print the document on full-sheet Avery labels (#05165). Cut the label sheets in half down the centre. Tip: To facilitate easy peeling and sticking, peel up 1/8” of the outside edge of the sticker and fold it onto itself to form a “tab” that you can easily grab when you’re ready to peel the label off the backing. Use coloured highlighters to identify different “sources” of your observations (e.g. add a strip of colour for each group of stakeholders or personas to the stickers).

Butcher Paper

Post large sheets of butcher paper on the wall. Use the custom-cut labels as “cards” and group similar observations together (this can be done at a desk or table before you unpeel the backing). When you have a few broad groups identified, stick your labels to the butcher paper. Leave room to expand your groups and add labels. We’ve found this method works well for projects that involve several team members.

We bought our 24-foot roll of butcher paper from a local butcher supply store for less than $60. Special thanks to Lisa Farlow for helping to refine these methods.

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