Continuing from an earlier post last month investigating the origins and value of using visual preference surveys as design professionals, let us look at an inherent philosophical flaw capable of spoiling the entire exercise.
When integrating visual preference surveys into the process, developers and designers can choose to only suggest design trends pertinent to generic approaches. The suggestions of styles, materials, colors, etc. should be driven by the unique demographics of the site. Ideally, the facilitators would present a diversity of examples, each dissimilar from one another. It is also wise to include one or two options based on the initial research phases to appeal to users or stakeholders preferences. Once a particular fashion is narrowed down, a second round of images or a different activity can help hone small variations. For example, in the case of evaluating furniture styles, it would be more beneficial to show ten distinctly different styles – traditional, rococo, nouveau, brutalist, industrial, folklore, hi-tech, minimalistic, organic and one representing the community – rather than variations of a singular style.
There are so many factors worth consideration while designing and performing these activities; listing all of these reflections properly would require the length of a manual rather than a single internet article. However, some tips can be summarized into the following “do’s and don’ts”:
- Do pay attention to group settings, the rating is meant to be individual. Sometimes individual preferences may be influenced by the “loudest” opinions from other community members. There needs to be plenty of space in the venue so users can spread throughout the room to avoid excessive interference. This does not mean brief conversations between the participants are to be discouraged; remember the larger benefit of this activity can transcend the goals of VPS. Sometimes community-building and internal bonding is more valuable and cherished than determining whether or not benches should be placed facing each other or in “L” shape.
- Do create a random and simultaneous order of voting. The worst thing to do would be to start voting in a single category, on a one by one basis, and then moving to the next category in the same fashion. A growing number of votes in a determined option would influence the vote of those users who do not want to go against what the majority is choosing, while their vote is being visible to those who are waiting to vote.
- Don’t permit the order of the presentation dictate an assumed preference. The layout of the images in the board should also be aleatory, without showing any sort of “progression” (e.g. rustic or old-fashioned furniture showing first and hi-tech, high-quality furniture showing last).
- Do present and arrange pictures with the same ratio and at the same scale. The size of the images should be visible enough for all participants, considering those who might be visually-challenged.
- Do not show furniture that is visibly wearied or presenting unique adaptations. Some backgrounds that deter the spectators are chain-link fences, metal fences, litter, poor-quality sidewalks, etc. Show the best image you can find about a product as long as it keeps a realistic look.
- Do try representing the element in a setting that looks as close to the site as possible. And it is ideal to avoid the inclusion of the excessive influence of artificial lights. Objects in all-white background are sometimes the only way in which all the presented furniture types can be harmonized by following a same style. However, this would not be recommended for a VPS setting.
- Do offer more than one options for rating. Don’t limit the activity to one sticker. Have a sticker for the most favorite option (+3), second most favorite option (+2) and perhaps a third favorite option (+1). It will be ultimately up to the facilitator to come up with an accurate, fair voting system. Consider that people may have a hard time making their mind when they are split between two or more different options that they really like.
- Do arrange for staff to be ready to clarify the images and engage with welcoming conversation. Always be ready to listen to their concerns. If having multiple categories, have an accountability system that makes sure all participants voted in every category. If not enough space in the room or time, retrievable booklet formats happen to be quite successful as well, ensuring privacy and better control of the decision-making process.
As a landscape designer, I believe VPS are an excellent public assessment tool that positions the designer in a privileged situation when done correctly. A professional expert who provides a comprehensive repertoire of tastes, trends, and recommendations to the public opens the doors to new possibilities linked to quality design. But the designer must also assume a subordinate role of community facilitator, one who cares to place the interests of the community over their own, and is willing to grant control of the decision-making process to the real experts: the locals who will eventually be the beneficiaries of the future project. I believe this is where community service and creative expertise meet in balanced harmony to achieve thoughtful, meaningful results.