Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.C - Finding New Ways to Communicate
4.C.a - Interactive Television
4.C.b - Teleconferencing
4.C.c - Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks
4.C.d - Visualization Techniques
4.C.e - Mapping Through Geographic Information Systems
4.C.f - 3D Visualization
4.C.g - Visual Preference Surveys
4.C.h - Handheld Instant Voting
4.C.i - Plan or Text Markup Software
4.C.j - Remote Sensing Applications

4. Introduction

4.C.g - Visual Preference Surveys

What is a visual preference survey?

A visual preference survey is a technique that assists the community in determining which components of a plan or project environment contributes positively to a community's overall image or features. As the name implies, the technique is based on the development of one or more visual concepts of a proposed plan or project. Once the visual concepts are developed, they are used in a public forum or other specialized public gathering to provide the public with an opportunity to review, study, and comment on their preferences for the features depicted by the visual representations. Typical uses of visual preference surveys include helping the community define the preferences for architectural style, signs, building setbacks, landscaping, parking areas, size/scope of transportation facilities, surfaces finishes, and other design elements.

The format for the preference survey can be a written ballot, a structured set of self-administered questions, a facilitated discussion, a focus group format, an open semi-structured forum, or used as part of another preference collection approach, e.g., handheld/instant voting techniques.

Why is it useful?

Visual preference surveys are helpful since they provide the public with a broad and relatively inexpensive range of options for depicting community features for a proposed plan or project. The actual technique may rely on sketches, photographs, computer images, or similar techniques to provide the basis for participants to rate or assess each visual depiction on a preference scale, such as a five-point scale. As a result, participants can express judgments and possibly reach a consensus about a visual design, architecture, site layout, landscape, and similar design features, which may be incorporated in the goals, objectives, design guidelines, enhancement/mitigation measures, and/or recommended standards for a study, plan or project.

Does it have special uses?

Visual preference surveys can assist agencies in the understanding and development of:

  • Community and urban design features
  • Transportation sub-area or corridor studies
  • Transportation alternatives development and analysis
  • Large-scale regional planning efforts
  • Visioning exercises (See Visioning)
  • Design charrettes (See Charrettes)

Who participates? And how?

Public participation will be dependent on the type of visual preference survey technique employed. For example, if a focus group format is used, then some public selection process must be used to include a set of individuals who are representative of the views and interest of the larger community. At other times, the visual preference survey may be included as part of a public hearing or public meeting process, with one of several "stations" or display areas containing the visual options. At the display area some means of collecting feedback from interested viewers will be needed, such as responses to a structured interview administered by staff or the completion by the viewer of a preference rating form.

How do agencies use the output?

The results of the survey will provide insights and direction to the agency on the preference of the sampled group. Based on the objectives of the survey and the representation of the community in the sampled group, the agency may make key decisions on the preferred types of project design features, studies, or plans. The results of the survey are also helpful in focusing community opinion on projects and plans, being a catalyst for further discussions, helping to educate the public about the design or plan choices, and offering an alternative form of collecting public or community opinion and feedback. Because of the visual basis of this technique, concepts and survey results are easily conveyed in the mass media.

What are the costs?

The cost for the visual preference surveys are usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the range of visual options to be displayed, the desired sample size, and the method(s) of collecting and analyzing public preferences. This techniques can be implemented using agency personnel and resources or through consulting services.

How is it used with other techniques?

Visual preference surveys can complement other survey techniques. (See Public Opinion Surveys.) It can also be used as part of a wider set of techniques to help educate the public about key features of a project or plan and to assist in the development of ideas or concepts. Consequently, visual preference surveys can be used in conjunction with public meetings or hearings, activities involving vision development, design charrettes, and focus group discussions or small group meetings. (See Public Meetings/Hearings; Visioning; Charrettes; Focus Groups; Small Group Techniques.)

What are the drawbacks?

Visual preference surveys are time consuming since they will require the development of one or more visual renderings of options or design features under consideration. This set-up time may require several weeks of preparation, depending on the availability of data, the skills of the artist, and the desired size and level of detail for the visual rendering.

Agencies using this technique will need to consider alternative methods for involving people with visual impairments. (See People with Disabilities.)

Because of the visual sophistication of the public, given the pervasiveness and societal influence of mass media and advertising, there may be expectations on the part of the public for high quality and completeness. The public may dismiss the visual content because the renderings or presentation are not developed to a comparable level of detail and quality they are use to viewing in the print and visual mass media.

It is also possible for the public to develop false expectations based on the visual rendering. Agencies need to ensure that a designer's visualizations are true.

When is it used most effectively?

Visual preference surveys are most effective when major design feature decision needs to be made. The technique is also valuable in helping to build a community consensus and momentum on a preferred design or study approach. Because of its visual nature, this technique is also most effective when complex issues and concepts can be depicted visually.

For further information:

"Shaping Dane" Pilot Project, Citizen-Based Land Use Planning in Dane County, Wisconsin, Electronic Planning Facilitation
UrbanSim software based simulation model, Paul Waddell, 206-221-4161 E-mail:
Envision Utah
FHWA's Toolbox for Regional Policy analysis, Envision Utah Case Study
Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development, Tools for Community Design and Decision Making, Inventory of Place-Based Planning Tools
City of Mankato, MN Urban Design Framework Manual, Visual Preference Survey (Chapter 2)

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