One of the oddities of moving to a new job in a new city after two decades elsewhere is that so many usually obvious things are suddenly unfamiliar.
Want to ride the public bus? Good luck figuring out what it costs, and what methods of payment are accepted (the signage is all designed for people who already know). Want to check your voicemail? Find the person with the passcode, find the manual with the access numbers, find the right extension from the six on your desk phone to make the connection. Want to print something? You’ll need to know the printer name to set it up, and then you’ll need an authorized ID card to get into the room to grab what you’ve printed. Want your ID to update and recharge? Waive it in front of the small circle on the wall in the lobby until a light turns blue. Of course.
And this is in an environment of gloriously helpful and supportive colleagues and staff. There’s no reason I should know how to do these things yet. I’m new to the system. I have to learn. And those around me have been using those systems long enough to make them obvious. After 20 years in the same place, I didn’t give a second thought to most of the infrastructure, or signage, or procedures, or barriers either.
Which brings us to the endless challenge of ‘experience audits,’ those walk-throughs we’re all supposed to do in our venues and facilities to ensure we aren’t creating barriers to full participation — accessibility, signage, front-of-house systems and services, staff guides, and all. Since quite often the people doing these audits are established staff members, they may not even SEE the things a complete stranger would see, particularly a complete stranger who had different perspectives, needs, cultural references, or experiences than them.
Not long ago, I went to a theater performance at a venue I’d never been to. And I was baffled at every turn about where to get my tickets, where to go once I had them, why people were milling around in a big clump before the show, who was staff and who was audience. And this was an otherwise wonderfully managed company with high-quality work on stage.
The challenge all of us have is auditing the obvious. How do you see things that might be confusing or contrary to someone with different eyes than you? When might a process or place that’s second nature to you, and therefore invisible, be a huge red flag or blockade to someone else?
You could observe and ask your visitors. But what if most of them were familiar with your space and its processes, too? What if the unfamiliar had been scared off long ago?
What occurs to me, given my fresh experience as a newbie, is that we shouldn’t ONLY audit our own spaces. But we should frequently go to places that are entirely unfamiliar (and perhaps even threatening) to US — not just to wander around them passively, but to attempt to participate fully in what they do. Then, we might bring a fresh perspective (and a new respect) to the challenges of our own venues, cultures, and traditions. Or, at least we’ll have a visceral reminder of what it’s like when we fail to make our places and our purposes wide open to the world.