Auditing the obvious

Speed limit strictly enforced (but not understood)

Flickr: Jake Lester Photography

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.


  1. Andrew Yarosh says

    You have my sympathies both for your “newbie” experiences in DC and at AU, but also in your reminder that we, as managers should frequently experience (and encourage staff members who are in direct contact with the public to do so as wellwhat audiences experience when they come to our venues. I recall that there was a survey (in Denver or Madison WI; or was it national?) that some of the major reasons that potential audience members didn’t choose to attend live performances is that they didn’t know where to park and how to navigate to the hall/theatre.

    Hang in there with living in a new city, especially having lived in one place for a long time. When I first moved to Denver, it took me months to figure out the way the map of the city worked; and then one day, it was just there in my mind. Staring at a map helped……

  2. says

    Great post, Andrew.

    Do you really think arts professionals have the capacity to see themselves and their institutions through the eyes of new audiences? I want to be optimistic, but after thirty years of urging this sort of self-scrutiny, I’m not so sure they can do it.

  3. says

    REALLY good blog about something that we ALL need to think about. Every so often, for example, I realize that not everyone knows what it is to commission music — even people who are regular concert-goers and music-lovers– and so it’s vitally important for me to think of ways to explain that. Good signage about what I do as a performer and commissioner of new music.

  4. says

    Excellent points, Andrew. I would even expand your reasoning to the digital home of an arts organization. The majority of your audience members will visit your website before they even step foot in your door. The same barriers to participation can be present online.

    How easy is it to find information about your upcoming events or performances? Is your website ADA compliant? Can someone purchase seats for a production that are wheelchair accessible? Where can a person learn about audio-described or sign-interpreted performances? Will that video play on an iPhone? (and many, many more questions…)

    As digital managers of our organizations, we can be blind to the same infrastructure issues that you run into in a physical space. To have a successful online presence, it is equally as important to audit your website with the same refreshed eyes or outside visitor feedback as your bricks and mortar spaces.