Just for the record

June 3, 2013

Recently an interesting speaker event was scheduled for a Tuesday evening. I wanted to hear the talk, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to the event: having a small child means often having to say ‘no’ to things that happen in the evenings. So, a week before the event, I emailed the organisers (using the contact form on their website) to ask whether the event was going to be broadcast, recorded or transcribed. If they assured me that it would be broadcast after the event, then I’d be able to miss it with a clear conscience, knowing that I could catch up later; if they said that it definitely wouldn’t be recorded, then I’d know that the only way I’d get to hear it would be by going along.

Shortly after submitting the form I got an apparently automated reply from the organisers saying “Your question has been received. You should expect a response from us within 24 hours.” 24 hours came and went, and I got no reply. I dithered about whether to go or not, and then, as chance would have it, my husband got an official invitation to the event and the reception afterwards; I decided that this gave him a better claim, and I stayed at home.

The day after the event, I got a reply from the organisers telling me that the event had been “video recorded”, that they hoped to have the film up on YouTube “within the next few days”, and that a brief summary of the discussion would be posted on the website before the end of the day.

Now there is no way on earth this was a last-minute decision. You don’t make last-minute decisions to film an internationally-recognised speaker in the Sheldonian in the hope that they’ll let you stick it up on YouTube later. You plan the filming, you get permission to publish the video, and if you want the material online as quickly as possible after the event then you make sure the people who have to edit the film and publish the transcript know it’s important and have time allocated for doing it. I realise that that’s a lot of preparation. But would it have really thrown that schedule completely off course to take the time to send an email saying “Yes”, or better still, to put a note on the event page saying “This event will be recorded”?

This was only a small annoyance for me; the talk was by no means essential to my work (or even to my happiness), and in the end the decision was made for me by other factors anyway. But I wanted to note it as a little example of the bigger question of how you communicate with your users and why, which is part of the even bigger question of accessibility. I’m not an expert in accessibility, and this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive overview (it’s a complex subject), but put simply: if you give people information about your event and your venue, they’re more likely to be able to engage with it in whatever way works best for them — not to mention being more likely to help you make everything run smoothly. If you give people good directions, they’ll be able to find the event, and get there in plenty of time, and not interrupt others by scrambling to their seat at the last minute. If you tell them whether there’s level access, or how many steps there are, they can make a rational decision about whether to allow extra time for finding the hidden level entrance, or for climbing lots of stairs, or whether to leave the buggy at home, or whether in fact it’s too much hassle to go at all. If you tell people what time an event finishes, they know if they can get back in time for dinner, or if they need to get a babysitter, or if they’ll have to leave before the end. If you tell them they’ll be able to catch up with the content afterwards, they can make an informed decision not to go in person but still participate, still feel positive about the event and the organiser. Conversely, if you withhold this information, then you make it more difficult for people to make an informed decision, more likely that they won’t participate, and more likely that even if they do participate they’ll feel irritated or resentful when they discover either that they didn’t need to worry — or that they should have worried more.

Of course, if you do communicate these things then you need to be sure you can deliver what you’re promising. The very brief report of the talk did go up on the website the day after the talk, but the video still isn’t on YouTube nearly 3 weeks later…

Edited to add: The video is now online, nearly a month after the event. Worth a watch!