Dot Voting: A Simple Decision-Making and Prioritizing Technique in UX (2022)

There are few UX workshop activities that work well in any situation. Dot voting is one of them.

Dot voting is a simple tool used to democratically prioritize items or make decisions in a group setting. It is an easy, straightforward way to narrow down alternatives and converge to a set of concepts or ideas.

Definition: In dot voting, each individual in a group is given a number of tokens (“dots”) that can be each assigned to an alternative which is part of a set of alternatives.

Dot Voting: A Simple Decision-Making and Prioritizing Technique in UX (1)

The Dot-Voting Process

1. Gather Materials.

Your materials will depend on what is voted on, and what you use to vote. Most commonly, dot voting is used to vote on options represented on sticky notes (usually hung on a wall or whiteboard) or as a written list on a large, easel-sized pad of paper.

For voting, dot stickers are most commonly used due to their flexibility. In cost-sensitive or impromptu cases, votes can be made with simply a mark (with a pen or marker).

2. Specify voting constraints.

Before the vote, remind individuals the purpose and value of the voting exercise. Why are they voting and how will the outcome be used?

Tell participants how many votes they will have. As a rule of thumb, give each individual roughly a number of votes equal to roughly a quarter of the total number of options available.

In many cases, it may be worth adding an additional constraint — participants are to vote on the criteria in which they have either 1) ownership or 2) expertise. For example, if the vote is on possible product features, developers should place their votes based on feasibility, while designers would place their votes based on impact to the user.

3. Vote.

Participants should place their votes quietly. Conversation should not resume until all participants have placed their dot or mark. No lobbying during the voting process.

4. Calculate outcome.

Once all individuals have voted, participants can converge and discuss the outcome. When dots are used, the content will resemble somewhat of a heat map (with concentrated dots in areas that received most votes). Depending on the goal of the dot voting, participants can discuss why they have voted for particular options or assess next steps now that a collective ranking has been achieved.

5. Potentially narrow and revote.

If you have a tie among top options or further prioritization is needed, the group can vote again to establish a clear winner. Reissue the same number of votes to each participant, but only allow votes on the top options (usually 2–4) emerged from the previous vote.

Adaptations

Dot voting has several weaknesses:

  • Persuaded voting: one person campaigns for their preferred option, usually by expressing her opinion out loud, with the assumption that others will follow suit
  • Split voting: there is an even split amongst the top two options
  • Group voting (often called group think): individuals think “I’ll just vote here since everyone else did.”

Make adaptations and add constraints to your dot voting to prevent these common pitfalls:

Give voters time to research the alternatives.

The more important a decision is, the more imperative it is to get educated votes. Give participants time ahead of the voting session to do their research. For example, if developers will vote on technical feasibility, they should have time to dig into APIs or existing code before casting their vote. This approach ensures that the voting is not based on assumptions, but rather on research and knowledge. Research time also increases participants’ confidence in their votes, making the post-voting conversations efficient and productive.

Make voting digital.

If your group is especially privy to group think, consider turning the voting session digital to prevent people from being influenced by others’ vote. Use a survey tool or a whiteboarding tool like Mural.co or Miro (both of which have built-in voting capabilities). If you prefer to keep the voting session technology-free, label the available alternatives (A, B, C, etc.) and have participants privately write their votes on a sticky note before their dot votes are placed. This technique helps keep each individual accountable for sticking to their original vote.

Dictate voting order.

To prevent skewed voting from the HIPPO effect (or other strongly opinionated team members), dictate the order each person places their votes. Have junior participants place their votes first, while saving stakeholders or subject-matter experts for last. This approach protects the votes (and voices) of those who may otherwise be less likely to authentically contribute and may automatically defer to others.

Similarly, there is out-and-back voting. Each voter gets two votes, and a voter's first vote is in any order. However, the second vote is in the opposite order or direction than the first vote. For example, if the first order was 1) Mary, 2) Steve, 3) Sally, and 4) Mike, then the second vote order would be 1) Mike, 2) Sally, 3) Steve, and 4) Mary.

Rank dots.

Have each participant rank their votes. For example, if three dots are given to each participant, one would have “1”, one would have “2”, and one would have “3” written on it. This enables a weighted vote. After the voting, you can compute a weighted rank for each option (for example, by assigning a value of 3 to all “1” dots, a 2 to “2” dots, and a 1 to “3” dots).

Color-code votes to signify different voting criteria.

Traditional dot voting uses same-colored dots. Consider introducing other colors, with purpose, to add nuance (and insight) to your voting activity. For example, if you vote on a set of ideas, green dots could represent feasibility, while yellow dots could represent impact to the user. The outcome would be a mix of green and yellow dots.

Regardless of what meaning you assign to colors, remember that some participants could be color blind. As a rule of thumb, always have participants also draw shapes on the dot stickers to coordinate with the color. For example, draw squares on red dots, triangles on yellow. This technique ensures that all team members will be able to read the outcome of the voting, even if they are colorblind.

Dot Voting: A Simple Decision-Making and Prioritizing Technique in UX (2)

When to Use Dot Voting

Decision making can be a tedious task. Add in other factors such as divergent stakeholder goals, mixed opinions, and the HIPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion) effect, and the task can become even more complex and hard to navigate.

As a rule of thumb, use dot voting if:

  1. You need to focus discussion on a subset of alternatives within a large set.
  2. The conversation around a final decision is full of friction and angst.
  3. Diverse perspectives are needed, but only a few opinions are being heard.
  4. You must make quick group decisions in a short amount of time.

Dot voting can be used to move a group towards collective consensus in almost any situation, but it is particularly useful for one of the following purposes:

  • Choosing amongst several potential research efforts
  • Assessing user insights to further explore
  • Narrowing down design ideas
  • Ranking topics in a discussion or workshop
  • Gathering information before creating a prioritization matrix

Benefits

Dot voting is beneficial for a multitude of reasons:

  • It prevents the HIPPO effect and enables all participants to contribute equally.
  • Expertise (and opinions) converge in a productive, time-efficient manner.
  • Discussion is focused on a few, prioritized possibilities.
  • It collaboratively creates a shared artifact that can be used to communicate decisions.

Dot voting is a fundamental, flexible activity that every UX practitioner should have in their back pocket. You can do it quickly or slowly, physically (with dots) or digitally (using a tool or survey). There are no rules — adapt the technique to fit the needs of your group, your context, and your goal.

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