Wistia Chief Technology Officer Brendan Schwartz Talks Making Video Accessible In Interview

Video marketing platform Wistia released its 2024 State of Video Report in late March. The company touts the report as a tool with which to “level up your video strategy with all-new insights, video marketing statistics, and industry benchmarks.” According to Wistia, amongst the biggest takeaways centered around accessibility. The company noted 26% of businesses reported believing that “improving video accessibility is important for the overall audience experience” and captions are “leading the accessibility charge.” Wistia reported an astounding 254% increase last year in businesses using captions in their videos compared to 2022. They attribute this stratospheric jump partly to the mid-year decision to provide automatic transcripts and captions free of charge.

“Our mission at Wistia is to help every business thrive with video,” said Brendan Schwartz, Wistia’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said to me earlier this month in an interview via videoconference. “Video should be maximally useful to every human on this planet, regardless of ability. I definitely cannot profess to have been an expert in accessibility currently, or anywhere along this journey. But it was driven by customer requests, and we’ve always been a very customer-centric organization.”

Schwartz, a 17-year veteran at the company whose main focus is product engineering, said early in Wistia’s life, he heard from a customer who was colorblind. Schwartz explained Wistia has a feature that uses heat maps to help delineate which parts a video a person watched, but noted the different colors were inaccessible to a person with colorblindness. Schwartz called making this accessible was an “interesting design challenge” and worked with the customer to make the heat maps legible to him. That experience led Schwartz and team to pull on the proverbial string and delve deeper into accessibility; Wistia started getting more requests for accessibility, such as support for captions by members of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It was around this time, in 2010, when Wistia began working with media accessibility company 3Play Media so that people could access captions and a transcript with one click. This work, Schwartz said, happened “long before AI” became a buzzword and represented a “really powerful moment” for Wistia.

Technologically speaking, Schwartz told me Wistia has come a long way since those nascent days in terms of delivering high quality transcripts and captions. As ever, the technology powering them has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s most noticeable, Schwartz said, in terms of cost. Back in the day, it cost “several dollars a minute” to generate text compared to contemporary times where automatic speech recognition, or ASR, has “gotten so good” and transcripts and captions can be churned out quickly and inexpensively. Schwartz added the bar for accessibility has “risen over time,” with there being more awareness of it and more technical standards being established around assistive technologies such as audio descriptions. It still can be expensive for small businesses, but Schwartz said he’s “really excited” about Wistia customers having the ability to press one button and order a transcript and captions for their video(s). Schwartz described it as the “last bastion” that any customer can create videos which are fully compliant with WCAG standards.

In terms of accuracy and sustainability, Schwartz noted Wistia continues its partnership with the aforementioned 3Play Media in producing what he described as “100% human-reviewed” transcripts and captions. In addition, Wistia works with Deepgram on automatic speech recognition. Because of artificial intelligence’s steady rise in prominence, Schwartz said “there’s a lot of competition out there” with “a lot of great vendors” in the ASR arena and prices for services have dipped accordingly.

Accuracy, Schwartz said, is of vital importance and he noted customers have reported captions on YouTube being subpar in this regard. It’s surprising news to him, given the resources available to Google to invest in building more accurate captions. One thing Wistia has done to mitigate errors is provide an easy-to-use transcript editor, whereby users can correct transcripts in an environment which Schwartz likened to Google Docs or Microsoft Word. “We want to make it really easy for people to be able to correct any issues [with the transcript],” he said.

Feedback-wise, Schwartz said customers are happy with Wistia’s support for accessibility in part because they have to be accessible; many companies, he said, are mandated to “adhere to higher accessibility standards.” Moreover, Schwartz said companies find support accessibility simply the right thing to do in a morality sense. The more accessible a video is, the greater audience it attracts because something like captions, as one example, is universally beneficial to anyone, regardless of one’s aural abilities. If you’re a content marketer, Schwartz told me, accessibility can spell the difference between someone engaging with a video versus clicking away and leaving to do something else.

“A lot of folks see these [accessibility] features as something that is going to get better engagement for their content and help them with what they want to do with their business,” Schwartz said. “I think it’s great.”

When asked about the future, Schwartz expressed optimism. He believes the ever-burgeoning capabilities of technology, particularly involving AI, will “continue to be a huge boon” for the disability community. For Wistia specifically, Schwartz said the company’s overarching goal is to make accessibility better and easier to implement. The exciting part for him is he feels he and his team “aren’t that far away” from achieving that goal. There’s a lot of increased competition in Wistia’s space, Schwartz said, but the higher pressure ultimately propels the company to work harder and build better products. Accessibility is one area where Wistia stands out in the marketplace, and something Schwartz is extremely proud to boast about. His long-term vision for Wistia is to continue innovating with great products and “make things more accessible and [create a] heightened and great user experience for everybody.”

Schwartz knows the work never is truly over. Accessibility is evergreen.

“We can all do better,” he said. “And we will be.”

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