Designing Better Events

I wasn’t always able to attend conferences and summits. I was healthy, able-bodied, and had no children or any of the other major personal obligations that make it especially difficult to attend large events. Yet, securing time away from my demanding job and the discretionary funds needed for registration, transportation, accommodations, and the many meals away from home were obstacles to attending.

In my fear of missing out, I would sometimes follow conference hashtags looking for the best insights, only to find the truisms and click-bate statements that tend to rise to the top on social media because they’re pithy: easy to remember and tweet-able. It was hardly the same as being there. I was still missing out on the presentations, which were posted late — if at all, and all of the conversations.

I thought those barriers to participating in conferences and large events was just how it was, something to be accepted. But like most things, it’s not how it needs to be at all.

To continually improve is a basic human instinct, but it can fade if we don’t practice. Designers practice it.

We designers have a knack for seeing reality for what it is and then imagining and helping shape something better. Issues that are normalized in society get identified, researched, analyzed, and critiqued — without us always being aware of what we’re doing. If we’re conscious and thoughtful about it, we may go further and iterate on real solutions.

To continually improve is a basic human instinct, but it can fade if we don’t practice. Designers practice it. We know how to take in information and ideas, to move from ideation to creation.

When I look at most event design, I see exclusion in big and small ways: exclusion of folks with disabilities affecting their vision, movement, thinking, remembering, communicating, learning, hearing, mental health, and social relationships; from temporary or permanent; from restrictions to impairments; the visible and hidden alike. I see the exclusion of those with physical demands, like nursing, and interpersonal dependencies, like child- and eldercare. With all of the costs associated with events, those with less economic advantage and stability are often left out. Communities with histories of oppression or marginalization often aren’t invited or made to feel welcome. Those with traditions that influence their use of time and space are often left out of events planned on sacred days or with no space for their customs. This is the event landscape.

The more I look at event design, the more I think that the wicked problem is deeper than the usual suspects: branding, way-finding, and website and application experiences.

The audience experience is what matters and who is in that audience is central. Who’s invited? Who gets to participate? Who gets to witness the curation? How do they feel? Are they able to influence what’s been made for them?

We can design a better event

This year, in April, we produced Design and Exclusion as a single-day event bringing forward the benefits and challenges of building inclusive products, services, and spaces. It was a natural time and topic on which to attempt to make a better, more inclusive and accessible, event. And we were lucky enough to have the partnership of Mash-Up Americans and MIT Center for Civic Media backing the efforts and direction as well as contributing to the audio conversations.

As the event chair, I had been given the event day, but one of the first decisions I need to make was around the event format. I considered:

  • our desire to be inclusive across ability, socio-economic, and cultural differences
  • ways to make the event welcoming to typically marginalized communities
  • all of the demands on our audience; what needs might they have that the conference should be aware of and try not to inhibit?

I decided to make the conference accessible to all by hosting it entirely online and allowing free access.

MLK Quote

That might seem like a big enough step, but I had done something like this before and the live-stream had been ruined by the company I paid to ensure that didn’t happen. At that event too, I made the content free and streamable to all, but the technical issues were an unexpected barrier that frustrated and caused division between us and our audience. I had a few restless nights thinking about how to ensure that didn’t happen again for this event.

In the end, I decided to pre-record the majority of the event content. While this meant coordinating speakers for more days in advance of the event, finding sound technicians to record them, and shortening our already short timeline significantly, I had to be sure we had another way to provide access to the conversations if the live-stream failed us. Thankfully, solving for this one problem also solved another problem. Recording in advance also allowed us to make the full transcripts available at the event start instead of at some later point. This helped us welcome those with hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and those who would rather read the content than listen to it — allowing each of them to participate in the event at the same time most others were.

In the end, the most accessible event I have planned was accessible because:

  • I planned it at a time that allowed for the most participation across geographic regions
  • we allowed the content to be paused and played at each listener’s convenience; so they could take breaks when they wanted
  • we pre-recorded the majority of the conversations to ensure quality and the time to make detailed transcripts
  • we made the full written transcripts available online at the start of the event for those who prefer or need to read the content
  • making the transcripts available online also allowed people to use translation software to read the content in their native language
  • we freed up our speakers to engage with our audiences online during the event, answering questions through social media as they came up
  • all of our event content was immediately available online during the event, to be shared with team members and otherwise captured for posterity and available for later reference
  • our digital event made it possible for folks who learned about it day-of or later to Design and Exclusion: Code of Conductstill get the full experience
  • we had a clear code of conduct that we made available through all channels for all attendees
  • we gave attendees ways to give us feedback on the content of the event, including speaker choices, timing, format, and event length so we can improve in the future
  • when the whole event is online, that experience is prioritized instead of becoming the secondary experience for the organizers and those in attendance

I’m happy with what we did for this event, but also recognize that it’s only natural that a conference on combating exclusion in technology and design be made inclusive. I’d like to challenge us to make each of our events, from individual meetings to large conferences, more inclusive than the last.

— — —

Good Design is Inclusive Design

Interested in the Design and Exclusion Conference Ashleigh mentioned above? Check out the event page for audio, transcripts, and more.

Ashleigh recently wrote a starter checklist for designing inclusively, because “good design is inclusive design:” Check out the checklist.

Interested in working for Automattic? We have a number of open positions.

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