This week wraps Elements, the conference formerly known as PSUWEB. It’s hard to believe it’s been around for 19 years, and the growth and expansion in those years has been transformational. Having served for many years on the program committee, it makes me proud to see the consistent quality of content presented, and that it’s earned a reputation in the world of higher ed as a valuable conference to attend.
I gave two talks; one on why user experience matters in application development, and one on accessibility. Both were new talks and both were actually well attended, but each was very different from the other. In the first, I wanted to show how user testing evolved and drove the changes in the application’s look and feel over four release versions. I knew better than to do a walkthrough in the actual application (that’s just asking for trouble) but it meant there were a lot of screenshots and animations to lead the audience through the points. I also showed the six page testing analysis from the blind user testing. It was a lot of stuff to include, and I knew I would have to stay on task. However, as luck would have it, I also had my share of tech fails. While setting up my computer, my slide notes were removed from my presenter view, forcing me to work from memory, rather than my talking points. Somewhere after the first four slides, my remote failed, forcing me to stand at my laptop to manually advance slides (and the animation builds). Not being able to move around the room, combined with starting late due to the previous speaker running 15 minutes over, effectively killed my speaking rhythm; it just felt rushed all the way through.
In some ways, the second talk was even more of a risk for me. It was a high level talk on how we needed to reframe how we view accessibility and disability, and how can we move beyond to do better for those we serve. Those kinds of talks make me nervous because how they’re received really depends on the type of audience listening to it; sometimes you just have to dive in and hope for the best. I did voice a disclaimer to the audience that it was not your typical Things You Must Do To Make Your Stuff Accessible to Blind Users talk in the event I had those people there, just to cover my bases. But there’s a point where you just have to stop hedging, commit to your vision, and hope for the best. I also strayed from my normal mode by opening with a personal anecdote on exclusion to aide in the storytelling and make the audience invested. I’m not fully comfortable with this presentation method, but I felt the subject matter warranted it.
After each of the talks, I received a lot of positive verbal feedback. People stopped me in the halls to talk, the twitter stream was favorable, and a number of DMs led me to believe that certainly part of the audience did indeed grok where I was going, and found value in them. Feeling relieved, I later checked the online feedback, but was disappointed to see only five people provided feedback for each talk, despite having six or seven times that number in the audience. When the feedback is so sparse, it’s hard to scale the audience reaction accurately, and any feedback of a critical nature feels a lot bigger than actually is which, in turn, can even color my own view of my talk. Positive feedback was provided in almost any other channel — tweets, drawings (!!), face to face interactions, direct messages — but without being aggregated in the official feedback channel, conference organizers don’t necessarily get to see the full picture, either. There’s also a couple of very real factors that could also be at play here:
- It was really hard to leave feedback on my phone. It took navigating through five screens to do this — and that was for one talk. That alone makes an attendee less likely to submit feedback.
- There’s no real way to enforce submitting feedback. Many people just assume that if a talk is good, they don’t really need to leave feedback. If a talk is poor, on the other hand, critical attendees can be the quickest to leave bad reviews — thereby possibly skewing the data.
Technical difficulties aside, I knew going in that these talks were two very different presentation styles than my norm and well outside my comfort zone, and that posed a definite risk. I probably should have chosen only one talk to experiment on, not two. (Sadly, sometimes you do not choose the talk; sometimes the talk chooses you.) I was so focused in thinking through the new hows of the presentation that I didn’t go back and ensure I also provided a proper summation of the whys and the outcomes. Perhaps doing a better job of showing the cause and effect of UX in each revision would have made the application talk less of a run through and demonstrate the outcomes in a more… well, critical manner. It’s already on deck for revision. As for the accessibility talk, one person really wanted the stories to tie back to real life applications. That’s fair. People like slides that spell things out and provide suggestions and solutions. I intentionally kept the slide deck small, wanting this talk to be more of a call to arms in reframing our concept of what “accessible” is. I’ll need to think about this a bit more to see if I can reconcile both points of view in the same talk. I also do need to do a better job of managing expectations in the abstract, because this talk changed direction late in the game when I realized what I was really trying to say. Realistically, the abstract should have been updated sooner to reflect the change, so that presenter and audience expectations are managed more effectively.
I think the moral of the story here is to remember that written feedback has its place, but it isn’t the only measure of a talk. I think it’s also important to consider the feel of the room as you are speaking, and if your audience is attentive or distracted and, perhaps most importantly, trust your instinct. When trying something different there will be varying levels of success, and it’s up to each speaker to separate the wheat from the chaff and find the nuggets of constructive criticism that will help you refine your talk and move forward for the next audience. It’s tempting to become defensive or “explain away” the criticism in feedback, but that’s not really going to result in an improved outcome the next time I give this talk. Despite a need for some minor retooling, both of these talks have led to requested collaborations with others who found value in what I had to say. At the end of the day, that has to be good enough.
Speaking involves taking a lot of risk. Remember that your feedback helps us to find the reward in it.