Designing Accessible Online Events Shouldn’t Be Hard

Learn how Gatherly hosted a national albinism conference where many attendees were visually impaired.

Sohan Choudhury
 min read

Community matters.

Months into a global lockdown, many of our communities have been stripped away from us. We’ve had to say goodbye to fellow students, coworkers, and friends — all for an uncertain amount of time. As naturally social creatures, we crave human interaction, yet we currently find ourselves sorely deprived of it.

Over the past couple of months, many of us have found ourselves reflecting on the communities that matter to us. For some, this loss has been particularly poignant. What do you do when your community is defined by in-person gatherings, and when it’s a major source of personal empowerment?

Over the past few weeks, our team has had the pleasure of working with an incredible non-profit that touches the lives of thousands. We’ve proudly helped them revitalize their community at a time where in-person events are impossible, and we think their story is worth sharing.

The community

NOAH, the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, was founded to serve the albinism community via offering both information and support. Their stated vision says it all:

“We envision a world where people with albinism are empowered to be fully-functioning members of society, where barriers and the stigma of difference no longer exist, and where people with albinism have a quality of life that is rewarding, dignified and fulfilling.”

By bringing people with albinism together, NOAH builds a community where those impacted by the rare condition can find meaningful support.

NOAH hosted their first event back in 1982 — a modest 100-person conference. The organization’s flagship conference, NOAH CON 2020, was set to be held in July in Orange County, California.

Obviously, COVID-19 changed everything. Faced with the challenge of bringing this 4-day event completely online, Lori Aubrey, our main point of contact at NOAH, spoke with us to understand how Gatherly could help. Here’s what Lori said about her biggest priorities and concerns around bringing NOAH CON online:

“As our core conference planning team pivoted from an in-person to a virtual event, we knew that we had an abundance of educational content we could deliver, but we were concerned about providing opportunities for the community to informally connect in a meaningful way outside of official programming and sessions. Social interaction is an integral part of our biennial conferences but was proving to be a challenge in planning our virtual event. When selecting a venue for our in-person conference, we pay careful attention to the physical spaces of a property that lend themselves to conversation and connection, facilitating the sharing experiences of living with a rare genetic condition, but we were unsure how to replicate this on a virtual platform.”

Right off the bat, Lori saw the potential in using Gatherly for NOAH CON 2020. Here’s how she described her initial impression of the platform after her first demo with us:

“Upon seeing the Gatherly platform, our team was giddy with excitement about the opportunity to bring people together in a way that most closely replicates in-person interaction. It was the missing piece in our virtual conference plan.”

Excited to be working with such an amazing organization, we quickly began the process of determining some of the specifics for what NOAH CON 2020 would look like on Gatherly.

Prioritizing accessibility

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Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

From the get go, the usability of Gatherly for NOAH CON attendees was the number one priority. Not only was this a large scale event — spanning nearly 10 hours over 4 days with a capacity of 1,000+ people, many of the attendees were visually impaired.

Seemingly trivial details such as the contrast of color palettes or the type and size of fonts can play huge roles in determining the usability of software for those who are visually impaired.

In order to account for this, we worked with Lori to customize the colors used on Gatherly’s map to create a high-contrast design. While this wasn’t a customization that we offered previously, we were happy to make this change completely free-of-charge, and now offer it to all of our future clients. After some iteration, here’s the design we settled on:

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In order to test the usability of this design, Lori had our team meet with Mike McGowan, NOAH’s Executive Director. Mike faced no issues with the high-contrast design, and was able to use the platform effectively right away. With the green light given from the decision-makers over at NOAH, all that was left was delivering on the actual event.

Delivering a great experience

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Mike and Lori from NOAH discussing their experience.

As a company, we know that hosting an online-event can be a daunting task. So many components, from the planning to the technology, have to come together to create an experience that is ultimately intuitive for organizers and attendees alike.

Once NOAH CON 2020 was underway on Gatherly, we made it a priority to stay flexible and offer quick support. Here’s a few ways we did this during the four days of the event:

  • Prior to the start of the event, I gave Lori a direct way to reach out to us in case of urgent questions or technical difficulties.
  • When attendees were using Gatherly outside of the predetermined times that NOAH had paid to use the platform for, Lori asked whether she should ask them to get off of the platform. We told her not to worry, as we don’t charge for any stragglers.
  • Lori heard from over a dozen NOAH parents that their kids wanted to get on the platform but were not able to due to our terms of service, which requires that individuals are at least 13 years old or are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian (due to federal policies). In order to accommodate these preteens, we set up an extra password-protected room free-of-charge. There were ultimately over 20 preteens that filled out a special waiver to use this room to socialize during the event!

After NOAH CON 2020 was over, I touched base with Mike and Lori (on Gatherly, of course) to discuss their experience. Here’s some of the aspects of the experience that Mike highlighted:

“I really see [Gatherly] as the next step of video conferencing. This is beyond webinars and Zoom. I’m just really blown away by the technology”
“We’ve got some experience doing social distancing via Zoom, but there are some limits. Gatherly really made it a much better experience.”
“I had a number of people say to me that they had been to a number of virtual conferences and they said that this was by far the most engaging.”
“In person experiences are absolutely valuable. We had a lot of people say that they missed hugging people! What I do see with online experiences though is that we can create opportunities to connect people who otherwise couldn’t do it — families can easily spend thousands of dollars to attend an in-person conference.”

Additionally, Lori commented on how she could see NOAH using Gatherly in the future:

“We’re really hoping, moving forwards, to have opportunities to bring people together on Gatherly once in a while. We’re trying to keep people connected between conferences. Usually, it’s 1–2 years before you see one another. You might have the numbers of a few people you meet, but it’s not the same as a group event.”

Our takeaways

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Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

After working extensively with the folks over at NOAH over the last few weeks, our team has learned some valuable lessons about hosting accessible online events.

Accessibility isn’t hard, it just requires time and flexibility. Startups often make the mistake of assuming that creating accessible software is too difficult of a task to do until reaching a certain scale. At the end of the day, however, accessible design is good design. When you’re willing to listen to and adapt according to the interests of your clients, it can actually help to improve your product. Working with Lori and Mike certainly cemented accessibility as a core pillar of our product.

Providing great interactive experiences is defining for us. Part of Gatherly’s vision is to improve digital interactions through a delightful online platform. At the end of the day, enabling NOAH CON 2020 attendees from all around the world to gather and interact in a novel way was incredibly gratifying. It’s a feeling we’ll be chasing.

And finally, we’re changing how people think about online events altogether. What started off as a one-time event with NOAH has blossomed into a partnership in which we aim to host multiple recurring events in the future. We’re on a journey to radically improve how people interact with one another online. Once people use our platform, we hope that it’ll change how they think about online events altogether.

We hope to continue bringing communities together despite the current circumstances. Thanks for reading — we’re excited to have you follow our journey!

Looking for a better way to engage online? Zoom not cutting it for your events? Check out Gatherly, a video chat platform built around natural movement and interaction.

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