Workshop Zombie Killer: The Power of the Warm-up Activity

February 18, 2013

UX designers and strategists should have the confidence and the skill to organize and facilitate effective and efficient participatory workshops throughout the design process, whether working with internal teams or with clients. Workshops are essential to establishing a shared understanding and ownership of a problem and its solutions among multiple key users and stakeholders. Unfortunately, if a workshop gets off to a bad start, that ultimately leads to bad results. So, in this article, I’ll present some effective ways of beginning a workshop by using a warm-up activity that helps to ensure you’re on the right track.

Attack of the Zombies

Before diving deeply into the details of warm-up activities, let’s look at a common workshop scenario that many of us may have faced and would, of course, dread. This is what would be likely to happen if you didn’t use a warm-up activity.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

In the Beginning

The workshop you elaborately prepared has officially begun. But, oh no! Attendees with all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise wander into the room like zombies. They lifelessly clutch their belongings close to their bodies, while looking for a seat in the shadows—as far away from the front of the room as possible. A few show at least some bravery by sitting up in front—but for most, only because that’s where their colleagues are sitting. They groan and fidget with their mobile phones. Their expressions and gestures say it all: “I really don’t want to be here!” or “When is lunch?”

You begin your meeting by going over the objectives, then answering questions like “When will this be over?” You can tell this is going to be a difficult two hours.

The Aftermath

Though cringing internally, you stand by the door, thanking everyone for their participation. (Was that really participation?) However, the reality of what just transpired is a bit alarming. For the most part, it was you who contributed the ideas. Some who did participate either subjectively criticized others’ ideas or dominated the discussion. Many didn’t even bother talking because they were afraid that others would judge them. The results were disappointing, and there was little progress to show. Was the entire workshop a waste of time?

You may have experienced bad workshops like this countless times. When leading your next workshop, you’ll need some help stopping the zombies from taking over! So, let’s look at what a warm-up activity is and how it can bring life into participants and the results of your workshop.

Keeping the Zombies at Bay with Warm-up Activities

Essentially, a warm-up activity is an introductory, participatory activity at the beginning of a workshop. Its purpose is to prime participants to think creatively and critically, while also setting the workshop’s tone and communicating your expectations for it.

The warm-up activity is the initial session that you’ll facilitate for your workshop’s participants and occurs before the workshop’s primary activities. It shouldn’t take up too much valuable time—from five to twenty minutes might be appropriate. Of course, this depends on how much time you’ve scheduled for your workshop, as well as the number of participants and their workshop experience, backgrounds, and even possible language barriers.

Recently, many of the workshops I’ve conducted have required an English translator, so I’ve had to dedicate more time to conducting warm-up activities. A rule of thumb: first-time activities usually take longer than you’ve planned. So it helps to allow some extra time when planning your agenda. If possible, you should have other team members watch the clock and help you to manage time, so you can focus on facilitation.

A great way to understand how long any workshop activity might actually take is to practice and rehearse beforehand. Grab your team members and have them do the activity. As you rehearse, pay attention to what parts of the activity are establishing a contextually relevant and engaging atmosphere and what parts are confusing participants, taking up too much time, causing participants to drift, or failing to encourage participation.

So when planning warm-up activities, be sure that they

  • occur before your primary workshop activities
  • do not take up too much valuable workshop time
  • are meaningful and relevant to participants and the context of the workshop
  • are as well prepared and rehearsed as any other workshop activity

Using Warm-up Activities to Change Behavior

Having a workshop with zombie participants wouldn’t lead to productive results. So let’s examine the behaviors we can expect to result form using an effective warm-up activity. Before a participatory workshop, you can use warm-up activities to change the behavior of participants by

  • breaking down their protective shells and encouraging them to engage and interact socially
  • providing opportunity for everyone to have an equal voice from the beginning
  • priming participants to call on their experiences and think critically, creatively, and laterally
  • adding a sense of thrill and excitement to the room’s atmosphere

Breaking Down People’s Protective Shells

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to design and facilitate participatory workshops for my clients and team members in the US, Australia, and South East Asia, across distinct social and company cultures. But a common behavior that I notice in people who come to a participatory workshop for the first time is that they tend to be more passive and reluctant to participate. This may be because the workshop setting is completely new and unfamiliar to them, or they might be following company and even cultural norms and expect just to listen rather than speak, or they may be quiet because they fear being judged by other team members.

So, to counteract this passive and restrained behavior, I have come up with some rules and expectations that I communicate to everyone in the room. Participants practice fulfilling these expectations during the initial warm-up activity and continue to follow them throughout the entire workshop. Here’s what I tell participants.

Providing Everyone the Opportunity to Participate

There are several things that you can do to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to participate in your warm-up activity.

Be Objective in Your Behavior Toward Others

We want our discussions, comments, and critiques to be relevant, valuable, and objective. Being objective ensures unbiased discussion, while providing participants a lens through which to look at an idea from multiple perspectives. The moment people subjectively critique other’s comments because of their biases or emotional attachment to their own opinions is when tensions arise, engagement dissipates, and communication breakdowns begin to form.

Ensure Everyone Is Equal

When joining the workshop, leave your title and status at the door. It’s not allowed in this room. Whether you’re the CEO, CTO, project manager, designer, or intern, everyone’s ideas and comments have equal weight. While an intern may have just begun working with the company, his or her life experiences are unique—very different from that of someone who’s been a CEO for 15 years—so an intern can contribute fresh ideas.

To deal with people who like to control conversations, I clearly state that the only person who is allowed to control the conversation is me—the facilitator.

Ask Everyone to Participate

There’s no sitting alone in a corner, hoping to not be noticed. [1] An easy way to encourage people to participate socially is to make your warm-up activities fun and quirky, yet relevant to their lives, past experiences, and the project. Usually, once a warm-up activity is over, I like to recall something interesting and relevant from everyone’s answers or ideas. This gives everyone a sense of confidence that their contribution was important.

Figure 1—Everyone participates
Everyone participates

Priming Participants to Contribute Good Ideas

Before you begin your workshop, be sure to explain to the group what a warm-up activity is, why it’s important, and what your rules and expectations are.

Okay, so now you have a room full of socially engaged, equal individuals who love sharing their ideas objectively. There are no longer any zombies in the room. Well, this sounds great! But you’ll need a bit more from participants if you want your workshop to yield productive results. You’ll need participants to collaborate and contribute great, thought-provoking ideas, not trivial, trite, meaningless, contextually irrelevant ones!

Great ideas come from a person’s unique experiences. But these experiences are embedded at different cognitive levels, so it can be challenging to access them. Some experiences and ideas surface easily through explicit communication—whether talking or writing. Other experiences and ideas relating to how we do things and make things are embedded at a deeper cognitive level, so require different activities to extract them.

In workshops that require participants to provide creative and critical thinking throughout, you must design activities that access all levels of their experiences. I recommend that you read Elizabeth Sanders’s article “From User-Centered to Participatory Design Approaches,”PDF in which she describes in greater detail how to access different levels of experience by giving people Say, Do, and Make opportunities.

Providing Say, Do, and Make activities during a workshop is also a great way to encourage participants to think laterally rather than vertically. Vertical thinkers tend to think logically and sequentially. But this kind of thinking can constrain creative ideation. Lateral, outside-the-box thinking forces our minds to explore ideas creatively and establish connections between unrelated things.

Accessing Experience Levels: Saying, Doing, and Making

By having participants do warm-up activities, you can discover many different levels of their relevant experiences. This will help you to gain valuable insights into how they learn, behave, and feel. So, when planning workshops, try to plan engaging Saying, Doing, Making, and Sharing activities. In the following sections, I’ll briefly describe these experience levels and some activities that you can use to access them.


Participants describe explicitly in words—whether talking or writing—how they feel about something or how they do something. This gives you insights that enable you to interpret what people express and lets you infer what they think. To access these experience levels, you can try using activities such as storytelling, interviewing, and journaling.


To understand how people do things and use things that they cannot explicitly state, we can observe them performing actions and using tools. To access these experience levels, you can try using activities such as acting, role-playing, and game play.


To gain access to people’s deepest experience levels, which relate to how people know, feel, and dream, we must provide activities that let them create, manipulate, and adapt. Great activities for Making include creating and manipulating physical models, collaging, and improvisation.

“When all three perspectives (what people do, what they say, and what they make) are explored simultaneously, one can more readily understand and establish empathy with the people who use products and information systems.”—Elizabeth Sanders

And Sharing

While sharing is not part of Sanders’s Say, Do, Make model, I feel that sharing is an essential communication channel. Sharing lets participants explain their thought process in generating an idea and teach others about their idea. It provides a two-way communication channel that requires participants to open up and present their thought process, while giving others an opportunity to discuss, clarify, interpret, and infer their meaning.

Setting the Tone and Having Fun

Let’s face it, meetings tend to be dry, boring, and uncomfortable—literally. Who enjoys being confined to a room, sitting in a chair for two or more hours, while listening to a person go over a PowerPoint presentation?

Warm-up activities can set the tone for an exciting and engaging workshop. They allow participants to have the freedom to get out of their seats, socially engage, and have fun—all while coming up with creative ideas.

For UX professionals who are interested in conducting participatory workshops, I’ll now provide some effective and enjoyable warm-up activities that I have incorporated into my workshops.

A Sampling of Warm-up Activities

Here is a sampling of warm-up activities that you can use to get your workshops off to a good start:

  • Grab Bag—A fun and engaging activity in which participants blindly pick an object out of a bag, then make lateral connections between it and a specific topic, and share them with the group.
  • Picture Association—An activity that gets participants out of their seats to choose an appealing image, then make a personal connection between it and a specific topic..
  • Playdough Mental Model—A crafting and modeling activity that encourages discussion and creative thinking through object manipulation.

Have fun trying out these warm-up activities, and feel free to tailor them to your needs, creating whatever would work best in your situation.

Grab Bag

You can use a Grab Bag warm-up activity to encourage lateral thinking through Saying, Doing, and Sharing. Ask participants to choose an object from a grab bag without looking, then make an association between that object and a given topic. Here is an example topic: How might this object represent your biggest challenge at work?

Figure 2—Playful objects in a grab bag
Playful objects in a grab bag

Materials—A Grab Bag warm-up activity requires the following materials:

  • opaque bag—A cloth laundry bag or grocery bag works pretty well.
  • random objects—Provide enough objects for all participants to choose one. These should be tangible objects that are neither fragile nor too valuable. I prefer cheap, whimsical objects that look fun, amusing, and a bit odd. Check out a dollar store, which is a great place to get such things. [2]

Preparation—Place all of the objects in the bag before the activity begins. No one is allowed to look inside, so keep the bag away from prying eyes.

Process—When doing a Grab Bag warm-up activity, follow this process:

  1. The facilitator goes around the room, allowing each participant to choose one object from the grab bag. Everyone must pick an object.
  2. The facilitator explains that participants need to relate their object to a particular topic, then gives them the topic.
  3. The facilitator gives the group a short time to think silently about how their object relates to the topic.
  4. One at a time, participants stand up, introduce themselves, describe their object, and explain how it relates to the topic.
  5. Throughout this process, the facilitator should mentally take notes and look for insights.
  6. At the end, the facilitator takes a moment to share the insights that resulted from this activity with the group.

Picture Association

You can use a Picture Association warm-up activity to encourage lateral thinking through Saying, Doing, and Sharing. Ask participants to make an association between a given topic and an unrelated photograph. Here’s an example topic: How does this picture represent your current workflow process?

Figure 3—Participants choosing a picture
Participants choosing a picture

Materials—Provide more than enough colorful photographs or printed pictures for all participants to choose one. Having some extra photos ensures that everyone can choose one that suits him or her. I prefer 6 x 8-inch, borderless, landscape images because they are large enough to see at a distance and the details in the photograph are clear.

Preparation—In advance of your workshop, print all of the images and remove their borders. On a wall or in a hallway, line up all of the images side by side, with some space between them.

Process—When doing a Picture Association warm-up activity, follow this process:

  1. The facilitator gives participants the topic and asks them to reflect on that topic silently.
  2. The facilitator leads everyone to the area where all of the photographs are lined up and asks participants to find a particular photograph that they think relates to the topic on which they were just reflecting. [3]
  3. Participants have enough time to look at all of the photographs, then choose one that they can associate with the topic.
  4. One at a time, participants present their picture to the group, explain why they chose that picture, and describe how it relates to the topic.
  5. Throughout this process, the facilitator should mentally take notes and look for insights.
  6. At the end, the facilitator takes a moment to share the insights that resulted from this activity with the group.

Playdough Mental Model

You can use a Playdough Mental Model warm-up activity to encourage lateral thinking through Saying, Doing, Making, and Sharing. Give participants a topic and ask them to create a physical object from playdough that represents their mental model of that topic. Here is an example topic: How does your department currently use the company’s intranet? Crafting objects from playdough creates a fun, playful, social context that all participants can really enjoy.

Figure 4—Creating a mental model out of playdough
Creating a mental model out of playdough

Materials—Doing a Playdough Mental Model warm-up activity requires the following materials:

  • playdough in various colors that participants can choose
  • 1 sheet of letter size, white, plain paper for each participant
  • markers, pens, and pencils

Preparation—Before the warm-up activity, lay out the playdough and other materials on a table.

Process—When doing a Playdough Mental Model warm-up activity, follow this process:

  1. The facilitator explains, “This activity is a fun, social way to understand everyone’s unique mental model of a topic. Each of you will represent your mental model of the topic as a physical object by crafting it in playdough.”
  2. The facilitator gives the topic to the group and lets participants have a couple of minutes to reflect silently on that topic.
  3. The facilitator gives participants about five minutes to work on their own to build their mental model out of playdough, on top of their white sheet of paper.
  4. The facilitator moves around the room, assisting participants as necessary. [4]
  5. When the time is up, the facilitator asks for a volunteer to stand up and present his or her playdough mental model first. When that person has finished presenting, he or she asks another person to go next. Do this until everyone has presented.
  6. Throughout this process, the facilitator should mentally take notes and look for insights.
  7. At the end, the facilitator takes a moment to share the insights that resulted from this activity with the group.

Keep the Ideas Flowing

If you have any ideas for warm-up activities that you could potentially lead before your next workshop and would like some feedback on them or if you would like to share some warm-up activities that have worked well for you in the past, please share them with the UXmatters community! 

Thanks to PlayAble and Digital Eskimo for providing inspiration.

UX Design Strategist at Aksorn Education

Bangkok, Thailand

Eric BerkmanIn his 15 years of experience in design and education, Eric has worked with clients that include Aksorn Charoen Tat—Thailand’s largest educational publishing company—IPST Thailand, University of New South Wales, Sydney TAFE Institute, AT&T, and Sprint. His expertise and interests focus on implementing and teaching user-centric, participatory design approaches with the goal of creating meaningful individual, social, and cultural interactions. Eric is coauthor of the O’Reilly book Designing Mobile Interfaces. He has a bachelor’s degree in Design and a Masters in Interaction Design from the University of Kansas.  Read More

Other Articles on Teamwork

New on UXmatters