Question time

Consultation, community engagement, stakeholder participation, surveys, workshops, meetings… How can designers discover what people actually want when designing a scheme? These skills don’t usually form part of professional training, and this sensitive and complex area is easily mishandled – to the potential detriment of design, or worse, planning objections and local opposition. Avoiding delays and negative PR is good; fostering community buy-in, and drawing on local expertise, knowledge and insight is even better. So, here are nine common consultation mistakes that designers, and how to avoid them.

1. Asking the wrong questions
Leading questions, ambiguously worded questions, irrelevant questions asked ‘just out of interest’ – avoid them all. Only start working out questions once you’ve decided exactly what it is that you actually want to know.

2. Asking the wrong people
Whose feedback do you really need? Current and potential users of a space, and those affected by its development are usually the must-haves. It’s essential that diversity issues and demographics are factored in. But there’s a balance to be struck between quantity and quality of feedback; more is not necessarily better, or more representative.

3. Great expectations
Be realistic with participants about the possible outcomes from a consultation. If this exercise is one of many gathering information to inform a decision, make that clear. Be honest about how much weight their views and the results of the consultation carry.

4. Language barriers
Industry jargon, acronyms, technical idiom and design-speak have no place in communications with the public. Unfamiliar terminology can create ‘us and them’ situations, and hamper meaningful co-operative dialogue. No need to dumb down – just discuss things in everyday language that anyone can understand.

5. Thankless tasks
All sorts of motivating factors and agendas spur people to get involved in local consultations. But make it worth their while anyway, and give them something in return for their time and input. If a consultation can be enjoyable, and include some humour or fun without being inappropriate, then go ahead – people will be more responsive. Aim to make everyone feel glad they came.

6. Not listening to the answers
So you’ve run a consultation event, and have generated a mass of Post-Its, flipcharts, notes, sketches and diagrams. Now what? Now you methodically sort, categorise and code all this stuff, so it can be treated as data and analysed: to gather information on the issues that you want to assess, and to identify areas you hadn’t considered. Structure is key here. Qualitative material is inherently messy; order needs to be brought to this informational chaos for it to be useful. Don’t gather it if you won’t analyse and use it.

7. Consultation fatigue
People participate in consultations in their own time; there are undoubtedly more enjoyable things they could be doing. Without cutting corners, take up as little of their time as possible and use it well. Over-long or too-frequent meetings, lengthy surveys, and being asked about the same things again and again are great methods for driving people away.

8. Foregone conclusions
Sometimes, apparently, a consultation is undertaken for the sake of appearances; decisions have already been made, and the exercise is a formality so the consultation box can be ticked. Don’t let this be you.

9. Not following up
Last but certainly not least, consultees’ greatest frustration – not hearing anything afterwards. Don’t leave people in the dark; they feel used. Ask for addresses and emails, send a thankyou message and a contact for further feedback or questions, and ideally inform them of the consultation outcomes and decisions made.

Agree? Disagree? As part of a new project, I’d like to hear about consultation successes, flops, lessons learned and innovative approaches. Please get in touch if you have experiences to share:

A version of this article appeared in Pro Landscaper magazine February 2016