Thousands of workshop exercises exist. However, few realize at the core of each of these exercises are the same 7 foundational activities. You can combine, mix, and remix these fundamental activities to create almost any exercise needed. As a facilitator, these core activities are should be familiar tools in your back pocket.

This article outlines these 7 fundamental workshop activities, discussing how to adapt them, tips for running them, and when they are helpful:

  1. Post up
  2. Affinity diagramming
  3. Landscape mapping
  4. Forced ranking
  5. Storyboarding
  6. Role playing
  7. Playback

1. Post Up

This is the most common and fundamental workshop activity amongst the 7. It is the base of almost all workshop exercises and has the broadest application.

Definition: A postup is an activity in which participants individually generate content on sticky notes, then post them up on a wall. Contributions are then discussed, captured, shared, or used as input for a future exercise.

A postup where participants individually generate content on sticky notes.

Why: Postups are used to generate a wide set of ideas that represent diverse perspectives in a time-efficient, democratic manner. They are helpful tactics for navigating dominating participants, unproductive conversation, and encouraging full participation.

When: Postups are highly flexible and, thus, can be used at any point in a workshop. The content generated in a postup can be anything: words, ideas, features, sketches, questions, concerns, assumptions, users, hopes, fears, research insights, or next steps. For example, at the beginning of a workshop, you may use a postup to generate workshop goals. Towards the end of a workshop, you may use a postup to generate next steps and action items.


  1. Add time constraints. Constraints often have a bad connotation, but can be extremely useful in workshop settings. Be sure your postup is productive and efficient by time-boxing the content-generation part. The amount of time given will depend on the content being generated, but start with 5–10 minutes, then adapting from there.
  2. Give participants quantity goals. Ask each person to produce 3 (or some other number) of sticky notes. This goal will push participants who are less likely to contribute to be more involved instead of letting others contribute for them.
  3. Explicitly choose anonymity or accountability. Postups can be anonymous, but don’t have to be so. Anonymity is useful when there is a range of hierarchy in the room or when the content generated is sensitive in nature (for example, workshop fears or current roadblocks). Promote anonymity by collecting ideas from participants, shuffling them, then posting them on the wall, rather than having participants post sticky notes themselves. You’ll also want to be sure everyone is using stickies of the same color.

2. Affinity Diagramming

Think of affinity diagramming is often the next step of a postup.

Definition: Affinity diagramming is the clustering of information, often sticky notes, into relational groups based on similarities or themes.   

Affinity diagramming by clustering common items.

Note that, even though the input for affinity diagramming is often a set of sticky notes generated in postup, it doesn’t have to be. For example, it can be done by cutting up a list of other items such as customer-support calls or site queries and organizing the content from there.

Affinity diagramming can be adapted as necessary. Clustering can be done as a group (this works best if the number of items being clustered is under 20 and the themes are to be discovered through the diagramming) or, if the themes are predetermined, individually and then reviewed as a group (this works best for more than 20 items).

Why: The benefits of affinity diagramming are twofold. First, it helps us discover patterns across a wide set of ideas. Second, when done collaboratively, it promotes a shared language. Participants can identify and align on what a specific theme or pattern is comprised of, especially if the theme names are generated collaboratively in the workshop.

When: Affinity diagramming should be used anytime you are converging after a postup. It enables a shared understanding and language amongst the group members.


  1. Plan your theme-naming approach. Decide ahead of time if you will predetermine groups before the activity or if you will allow them to naturally surface during the activity. Predetermine group names if you are late in the design process (and thus already have existing categories to work with) or if you are sorting a large quantity of items. Conversely, allow group names to be collaboratively created by the participants during the workshop if you are early in the design process, or want to enable the emergence of a shared language amongst participants.
  2. Create an “ungrouped” group. When grouping, participants will be inclined to force each item into a group, even if it doesn’t quite fit. To prevent this tendency, create an “ungrouped” group. This group may contain oddballs or outliers or it may end up helping you uncover new categories.
  3. Try subclustering. To promote a deep understanding of the idea space, prompt participants to do affinity diagraming on the items within each category (and, thus, create subclusters within the larger clusters) and name each. This method can reveal patterns across categories and can serve to doublecheck that items were grouped correctly.

3. Landscape Mapping

This activity works as a followup for postup and affinity diagramming. If you took the categories obtained from affinity diagramming and determined the relationships they have to each other, you would be doing landscape mapping. Landscape mapping is how many UX maps, including empathy maps, customer journey maps, and service blueprints, are built.

Definition: Landscape mapping is arranging groups of similar content (usually) sticky notes into a preassigned structure (such as a customer-journey map) so that we can understand relationships, interplay, and patterns across items, groups, and time.

Landscape mapping by arranging items into a preassigned structure.

The format of landscape maps is highly variable: matrices, tables (the common swimlane structure of customer-journey maps and service blueprints), and Venn diagrams are the most common. They can be messy and low-fidelity or structured and high-fidelity, depending on goals and context. For capturing and consolidating insights, keep your landscape maps low-fidelity. If you use the map to communicate and share conclusions, aim for a high-fidelity output.

Why: Landscape mapping helps us understand how items or categories relate to each other. They serve to identify relationships, then create alignment and insight across the different ideas or themes.

When: Landscape maps are best used after a generation-based activity (like a postup) to drive further insight and alignment.


  1. Identify the goal and structure ahead of time. The breed of landscape map you use in a workshop should depend on the larger goal and context of the workshop. For example, if you want to better understand customer actions, thoughts, and emotion, then a customer-journey map structure may work best. Or, if your team wants to better understand complex hierarchical data, then you may adopt a treemap structure.
  2. Constrain time. Due to the complexity landscape maps can introduce, it is easy to spend endless time discussing the relationships and interdependencies of items, especially in a large group. To circumvent this issue, break apart tasks step-by-step and time-box each. For example, if you are creating a free-form landscape map, spend the first 10 minutes drawing arrows to indicate relationships between different elements. The next 10 minutes can be spent labeling each relationship. Breaking apart tasks allows participants to focus on one goal at a time, ultimately making them more effective and productive.

4. Storyboarding

Storyboards (or vignettes) expand a specific idea and add context to it so that it’s better understood, communicated, and agreed upon.

Definition: storyboard communicates a story through images displayed in a sequence of panels that chronologically maps the story’s main events.

Storyboarding is communicating context around an idea through a series of illustrations.

Why: Storyboards put context around ideas or users; they tell stories about our users. When based on real data, they can take the focus off our internal bias, help us understand what drives user behavior, and frame the experiences we create in a holistic way. Storyboards can and should range in fidelity depending on how you are using them.

When: Storyboards can be useful in a variety of workshop types:

  • Research and discovery workshops: Storyboards can synthesize research into a shared narrative. Visualizing a user’s context (device, office space, or group setting) helps your team and your stakeholders empathize with your user’s situation.
  • Ideation workshops: Storyboards can be used to flesh out ideas generated in the workshop, contributing to an aligned vision and goal.
  • Prioritization and critique workshops: Use storyboards to visualize how users will interact with your application. They will aid in understanding the features that are necessary for your user to complete the scenario and, thus, are important to focus on.


  1. Introduce constraints. Time boxing is extremely important in order to promote productivity and force participants to be okay with capturing ideas imperfectly. Give a clear quantity goal and a specific amount of time to complete it. For example, have each participant fold a piece of letter sized paper into 8ths. Then, give them 10 minutes to complete an 8-step storyboard — one step per box.
  2. Remember, mediums matter. The medium you choose to create storyboards will have a large impact on how participants approach the activity. In most cases, limit sketch space and use thick sharpies so sketches don’t become too detailed, but are focused on the overall narrative.

5. Forced Ranking

Forced ranking is the foundation of any prioritization exercise, including dot voting, prioritization matrixing, the $100 test, and the NUF (new, useful, feasible) test.

Definition: Forced ranking is any collaborative prioritization activity that directly weighs items against each other in order to create a strict order.

Force rank by directly weighing items against each other.

Forced ranking can be as rigorous (tying specific scale or dollar amount to each item ranked) or as lightweight (basic dot voting) as needed.

Why: UX practitioners are often caught in a balancing act: user needs versus what is technically and organizationally feasible. Forced ranking serves to identify the most important things to focus on. This structured, objective approach helps achieve consensus while satisfying the varied needs of the user and business.

When: Forced ranking is extremely flexible and can be applied in a multitude of ways and at a variety of times. Use forced ranking after almost any activity or exercise, in order to decide which of its outputs will be the focus of your next activity. For example, use forced ranking to prioritize which of the ideas generated during an ideation session should be prototyped.


  1. Give time before ranking. Depending on the context, some rankings may have significant consequences (for example, they may impact future resources or release priorities). In these cases, be sure to give time (anywhere from a day or week) for participants to do their due diligence and rank from an informed perspective.
  2. Explicitly choose anonymity or accountability. Similar to a postup, anonymity can be an advantage or disadvantage. If the group is prone to groupthink or the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) effect, then consider having individuals rank on their own and submit their rankings anonymously. Conversely, in some instances it may be helpful to surface participant’s rankings, whether to foster conversation or discuss expertise-related perspectives.

6. Role Playing

Role play is a technique used in workshops to challenge biases and assumptions. It is the key component of Jeff Kelley’s Wizard of Oz technique and Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats.

Definition: Role play is the acting out another  perspective (e.g., user) or system (a set of known information or data) as a technique for exploration and discovery.

Why: Role play in workshops forces participants to change how they think about something. By deliberately challenging how they naturally approach a problem, attendees can develop new thoughts and ideas.

When: A the highest level, role play can be applied in two ways: participants can play the role of the system or the role of another person (someone with a different perspective or a user).

In the first case (participants play the role of the system), role play is used as a review mechanism to assess gaps within a designed system. The facilitator should assign a workshop participant (per group if the workshop is over 6 people) to play the role of the computer or system as it interacts with a user (either recruited into the workshop or played by another participant). The participant playing the system can only respond from a script of what the computer or system knows (even if she otherwise knows the appropriate information or response outside of character).

In the second case (participants play the role of another perspective — such as user or project-budget manager ), role play is primarily used to encourage new perspectives and reassess priorities. This is especially helpful when dealing with finicky audiences, as you can assign roles (such as “optimist”, “pessimist”, or “feasibility driver”) to combat natural tendencies of participants. In this scenario, each team member is given a new role to play. Each participant must then contribute to the activity at hand from the perspective she has been assigned.


  1. Expect discomfort. Role play is a concept that is often outside of participant’s comfort zones. When prompting attendees to participate, expect resistance and potentially awkwardness, until they get used to the technique. Reiterate the purpose of the method and reassure people that it is okay for the activity to feel unnatural or silly at the onset.
  2. Make it fun. Many activities within a workshop are rigorous and require intense thought and reasoning. Allow this technique to bring fun back into the workshop. Try providing props (like colored hats and paper prototypes) and switching up the layout of the room.

7. Playback

The act of sharing in a workshop is an activity in and of itself and core to all workshops. It is especially useful when participants are working primarily in groups (which should often occur in workshops with more than 6 participants).

Definition: Playback is the activity of sharing progress, process, or insights gained by an individual (or a subgroup) to a broad group, either in an informal or formal way.

Playback is when a group shares progress or insights gained with a larger group.

Playbacks can be done within a small group, with each participant sharing her ideas. They can also be done across subgroups, with each subgroup sharing its output to the workshop group. Playbacks can be as quick as 1-minute high-level shares or as formal as prepared presentations (skits or slideshows).

Why: Divergence and convergence is a key characteristic of workshops. By first working independently on a problem, then converging to share insights, teams can leverage progress made by others. Playbacks help converge insights across teams so that everyone within a workshop has an understanding of the outputs and the work of other teams. This understanding ensures alignment and shared language across the whole workshop, not just within workshop teams.

When: Playbacks can and should occur across the entirety of a workshop. The longer the workshop and the higher the number of participants, the more important it is to include playbacks.


  1. Start small. Not every participant will feel comfortable sharing to the broad workshop audience. Warm attendees up before asking them to share to the whole group. Try using a pair-share activity (in which participants share their thoughts with a partner) towards the beginning of the workshop, subgroup playbacks (sharing within small groups) towards the middle of the workshop, and workshop-wide playbacks towards the conclusion of the workshop.
  2. Vary formality. In longer workshops alternate between informal and formal playbacks.  Switch up time and medium used for sharing throughout the workshop. For example, in addition to traditional verbal shares, encourage participants to use a combination of role play, skits, storyboards, and digital slides.     


Think of these 7 fundamental workshop activities as ingredients for every workshop recipe. By understanding these and how they can be combined with different constraints, you can create almost any UX workshop exercise you need.