This study employed and compared different methods for capturing farmers’ preference for common bean varieties in southern Ethiopia and tested their expressed preference using active selection of drought-tolerant genotypes. The results showed considerable variation in farmers’ variety preferences, but the most important variation consistently focused on a fairly consistent set of variety traits. Different methods indicated that farmers considered earliness as the most important trait. Culinary qualities and marketability showed to be at least as important as drought tolerance. Comparing different methods in identifying farmers’ preference indicated that recording farmers rating or ranking for traits in breeding may not be effective or predictive of adoption for new variety and resulting variation among farmers. Real-time participatory selection was quick, efficient and accurately revealed farmer preference. The relatively high level of coincidence of farmer selections and selections made by breeders and extensionists, combined with the relative consistent set of important traits to consider, suggest that diversity of farmers demand is not the first concern. The challenge of the common bean breeding for southern Ethiopia therefore lies in combining different mechanisms of drought tolerance with culinary attractiveness and marketability. Market in the study region shows to be fairly dynamic and as a consequence farmer preferences for grain types and colour are not static. Breeding that focuses on traditionally grown colours, shapes and sizes may therefore restrict farmers’ access to novel attractive and adapted germplasm.