SXSW Interactive 2008 – has it been a year already?

Here are my top takeaways from the conference this year. I didn’t cover all the talks I attended, but reference the ones I got the most out of. Definitely ask me about any of the examples. I would love to share more in person! Also, feel free to share with anyone who might be interested.

Twitter was a huge trend with this audience. (Funny, almost no one talked of blogging at all). It was referenced in almost every talk I went to. For example,
“How many of you are Twittering about our panel right now? [huge show of hands]… OK be nice!”
“Check out the Twitters about the audience disagreeing with your fellow panelists”… “I know, I was reading twitter while I was on the panel”
“Someone tell me why I sucked so bad”… “Check Twitter!”.
Huge debates happened publicly over Twitter (ie, Techcrunch and Scoble regarding facebook interview). The many uses for Twitter included: finding people, having public conversations, sharing funny anecdotes, taking down nuggets during a talk (I forgot my pen), highlighting good talks, complaining about bad talks, lifeblogging (literally sharing every movement- “I am at starbucks”). Personally, I found it tough to say something of any value in under 140 characters… but I guess this makes you be concise. I noticed lots of people using tinyurls to keep references under the character max.

Something new
“Core conversations” was a very interesting new format this year. Speakers sit behind a round table and everyone pulls up chairs in a semi circle. Very interactive and conversational. It was a great way for speakers/ experts to target their talk to the audiences’ needs/ expectations by getting their input early. I found the audience sometimes was able to answer each others questions, even better than the speakers. Unfortunately, it was a bit hard to hear (5-6 conversations at a time in a big room). Overall, great discussions and perhaps better than panels? Panels most often stayed too broad and unfocused (Localization and Designers vs Developers panel examples)

Takeaways to incorporate into my work
– I was reminded in Micah Alpern and Andy Edmonds’s core conversation on metrics that I could do better job bringing in metrics and customer feedback throughout my projects- read the raw user comments, play a huge role in showing the 360 degree view by visualizing the state of the product, showing metrics contextually (dropoff rates, etc) along with user feedback, eye tracking, etc.
– Visualization is so important!
– User control should be a key principle (privacy/ visibility settings)
– Role of design in a/b testing (Corey Chandler’s panel)- still need to make sure options are well designed and we are always presenting our “best guess” or informed hypothesis, fight to do no evil (even just for testing purposes- remember there’s always a user impact)
– Designers as magicians analogy from Jared Spool- recognize difference in mental models between the designers and user. Good Google example of the extreme complexity going on when a user searches, yet the simplicity of the pages he experiences
– Meet basic expectations and needs first, then blow them away with desirable features and products (but don’t forget the first part)
– User interpretation of site experience is not accurate, and is greatly influenced by ability to easily have their needs met and tasks completed (amazon/ example)
Cool tool for simulating the human visual system from Andy Edmonds, and specifically how people really interact and take in your site.

Highly inspirational
The Business of Happiness: Jane McGonigal predicts that by 2013, happiness & well-being will be the new capital. We will be using metrics which measure how much we increase happiness with a product. There will be communities centered around creating a life worth living. She proposes four principles of happiness: 1. Satisfying work, 2. Good at something, 3. Time with people we like, 4. Part of something bigger. She focuses the rest of her talk around games, and says that for many, virtuality is beating reality. ARGs are alternate ways to experience the reality of today. Her talk is really interesting. I highly recommend checking it out on podcast. She specifically references a few ARGs: World without oil (the game is over but the data is still online), (in progress), The Lost Ring (just getting started), and Chore Wars. I am really inspired to learn more about the happiness research and think more about how this relates to my daily work and the community tools we’re building at LinkedIn. In a conversation later, John Mark Josling recommended this book to get started with the research.

Sustainability visualizations: Helping people see their environmental impact is essential to getting them to care and make changes. One way to do this is to take the massive amounts of data out there and create compelling visualizations that tell the story, and put them in front of people. Examples include Prius dashboards showing the MPG, ARG games like world with no oil, etc.

On the lighter side
– “Worst website ever” – 6 teams competed with very funny proposals for VC funding (including the PeopleIPO and Image search for the blind)
– “5 things elite designers should stop saying” – James Reffell brought large printouts of designers looking very “designer-y” and had the audience come up with stereotype phrases like “I am the designer and I said the design is right” and “well it works fine in safari”. James utilized LinkedIn Answers to get contributions from his network to inspire his talk and seed the discussion.
– “Scenarios for social technologies in 2025” – They held a funeral for Dirk Diggler with a eulogy about his fight with Disney over his property rights and an auction for kids who can’t afford facebook pages (due to laws against advertising to kids).

Opportunity to do more LinkedIn Branding
Much of this conference is about networking, reconnecting, being inspired by up-and-coming industry leaders, deep conversations with panelists, etc. The LinkedIn brand has a huge opportunity to be there prominently reminding people to connect on LinkedIn, showing off the handy new mobile product, and generally having a strong presence insisting LI can be a valuable asset at work and away. Also, a lot of the talks were about building communities, reputation, social networks, new businesses, etc. It might be a good place to host a booth or sponsor some events next year.

Facebook interview fiasco
Scoble has a good synopsis/ analysis.

Overall, I found the interviewer’s demeanor, mid sentence interruptions, odd anecdotes, and passive aggressive response to the audience to be pretty distracting. As for Mark Zuckerberg’s part, I expected him to be a little cocky, but he was extremely humble. He repeated himself a lot and definitely recited a lot of PR memorized lines. But there were enough nuggets in there to inspire. I was interested in his comment about giving users a lot of control over who they make their info visible to. His conclusion is the more visibility control you give users, the more they will engage and contribute. For example, users are way more likely to input their cellphone numbers if they have really granular controls over who can see it. Pretty obvious, but a relevant point to keep in mind during the usage debates.

Funniest moment
At the conclusion of her talk, Jane McGonigal bowed the audience request to demo the Soulja Boy dance at the end of her talk. Absolutely hilarious. As if she didn’t already have the audience eating out of her hands due to her charisma, intellect, awesome presentation, and brutal honesty… I highly recommend everyone watch the webcast of her talk.

Best User Experience
An executive from Zappos gave a talk about the companies sharp focus on user experience (including the free returns). As Luke Wroblewski pointed out, they displayed great proof of this when they stood at each of the conference exits handing out Zappos branded raincoats during the one day of thunderstorms. Talk about awesome branding… the streets were filled with people happily covered head-to-toe in Zappos logos staying dry in the downpour.

Conference too big?
Heard a lot of grumbling over twitter and in the halls that the conference was way to big this year (I was told it’s double last year, and last year was double the year before). I noticed it was hard to get into certain parties and panels (I wanted to go to “browser wars” but they had 2* the room capacity show up for it). It didn’t quite feel like the small community it did last year (rarely ran into the same people, didn’t get to have the same hallway conversations, missed old friends entirely). There was a really wide net of professions (PMOs, company owners, designers, engineers, VCs…), industries (academia, startups, non-tech, etc), and expertise (industry expert to extreme beginner- someone asked how to do usability testing in one of the talks I attended). It was also a huge conference center (felt like a mile between the rooms).

Times I wished I could be 2 places at once
– Christina Wodtke, Luke Wroblewski & panel- Logos
– Gossip panel by Valleywag (apparently heckling occurred)
– Henry Jenkins interview
– Steve Ganz’s panel on social networks

List of Panels
Design Metrics resources


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sxswi 2007 – smart, inspiring, and super fun

I went to the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin a couple weeks ago (March 7-11) and was quite inspired- by a few of the conference speakers, but mostly just by the energy, the hallway conversations, and the feeling that I was surrounded by THE group of people shaping technology design right now. The vibe was great… it didn’t hurt that many of the companies threw awesome parties in the evenings. Nightly we enjoyed 3 timeslots of fun, each with a bunch of parties competing to give us free booze, good (most of the time) music, and (my favorite) creative swag. But back to the content of the conference…

Here are a few of the my favorite quotes (as close as I could get them):

  • “Green your geek.” Alex Steffen on how to make social & environmental changes on a daily basis
  • “[Blogs are] like watching you get beaten to death by croutons.” Bruce Sterling
  • “Disorder is only an order we cannot see.” Dan Saffer on Vegas as well as websites such as MySpace and eBay
  • “It is better to be flamboyant failure than mediocre success.” Jeffrey Zeldman on being fearless with design
  • “[Mashups are] an epi-phenomenom, but not a cultural advance.” Bruce Sterling
  • “Current journalism needs a spine transplant.” Dan Rather on the dearth of investigative reporters in the past 5 years
  • “You are brilliant and the earth is hiring.” Alex Steffen quoting Paul Hawkin

lukepanel1.jpgCrawdaddiesBook signing

My take on what panelists were talking about this year:

  • Participatory culture/ user generated content
  • Politics- DRM rights, politics of fear
  • Virtual worlds, avatars, gaming
  • Design for change; sustainability, social, educational
  • Designing well & smart in big companies
  • Finding inspiration in many arenas
  • How to hire, build design teams, communicate better
  • The role of class in design

My favorite talks:

They’re continuing to post podcasts to the south by southwest site. I highly recommend checking some of them out.

Here are a few final thoughts on the conference:

  • There’s a relatively low barrier to entry for presenters- no paper required, there’s just voting on the website. This is good and bad… good because it might get some of us to start talking about our work (we came up with a huge list of interesting topics about our eBay design challenges, culture, community, etc.) and bad because you have to pick and choose carefully (by the end I was only going to panels that had a presenter someone recommended).
  • Panels were better when the moderator did not present, but focused on keeping the conversation flowing. Also, preparation and chemistry between panelists made a huge difference.
  • I had no idea Austin weather was so finicky. One day hot, the next stormy, the next perfectly gorgeous. Nor did I realize so many bars could survive in such a small radius.
  • Twitter was all the rage- sxsw even provided a central big screen TV displaying messages real time (shockingly entertaining)

All in all, a big 2 thumbs up for sxswi!

sxswi - after the BBQ lunch

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sxswi talk: Bruce Sterling’s End-of-Conference Rant

I will not be able to do this talk justice with my notes, but tried to capture some of his topics. Yochai Benkler’s peer production seems very relevant to the work we do at eBay.

On New Media

  • Old vs new media- there is no convergence, broadband eats everything
  • Viacom suit- Old media fighting but the teens are coming and care nothing for the old media and their offering
  • Richard Stallman
  • Google age- info is free, strange to a journalist who’s used to gathering info being a strenuous process
    • Professional journalism is not a business anymore
    • Demeaned to the level of a wikipedia contributor
    • How make a living?
  • Need more aesthetic honesty
    • Mashups are vogue/ novelty, but not lasting. An epi-phenomenon, but not a cultural advance
    • Fan art terrible
    • Digital tools melting media down to slum
    • It’s a world of laptop gypsies
  • Blogs… “Like watching you get beaten to death by croutons”
  • No good, shared vocabulary for describing what’s good and bad, can’t give real website critiques
  • What kind of medium allows for 90-95% spam? What if you turned on the TV and someone immediately tried to rob you?


  • Broadcast TV is for the semi-educated, is an evil medium, debase even the poverty stricken who watch it
  • Reed Hundt
  • Should use the TV spectrum instead for internet
  • Using police, fireman, and other securities to pull muscle with congress
  • “Get us some damn broadband”

On Commons based, peer production

  • Sterling offers Al Queda as a scary, but good example of this (“existence proof”)
  • Computers are platforms for self-expression, NOT well behaved appliances. This is why they are a good medium for commons-based, peer production

Closing poem

  • Sterling ended with a poem by a polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz
  • Serenity and self fulfillment

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sxswi talk: World Changing 2.0

I saw this talk completely by accident, crashing it to get a seat for Bruce Sterling’s end-of-conference rant… and it ended up being by favorite. Alex Nikolai does such a good job taking a really scary topic, and showing really tangible things people are doing to make change. He is so convincing that we too can bring about change, just by figuring out how to make the things each of us is passionate about and love to do “green”.

  • Book: “World Changing for 21st Century”
  • Things that have worked:
    • Put energy meters inside
    • Car share
  • When we’re done with things, people who made them should be responsible to take them back and recycle the materials
    • Creates more incentive to build things that are easier to recycle (ex cell phone that comes apart at high heat)
    • Rug rental, power drill rental
  • Need things around us that tell better stories
    • We should have eco-nutrition labels on everything we use, buy, & design
  • Projects going on now?
    • Starsight project
    • Distance medicine over handhelds for third-world countries
    • Landmine detecting flowers
    • Life-straw- filters water through it, can drink from anywhere
    • Therapeutic peanut butter
    • Play pump- water is pumped by children at play
    • Acumen fund
    • Malaria nets
  • We have a choice- replicate the flawed patterns of today or create a new, bright green future
  • “You are brilliant and the earth is hiring” Paul Hawkin
  • What can we do?
    • “Green your geek” (you love gardening, then make that eco friendly, etc.)
    • Use your computer as long as possible, then donate it so it can be refurbished and sent to schools in 3rd world countries, etc.

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sxswi talk: How to Create a Kickass Design Team


How to Create a Kickass Design Team with: Jon Wiley- Google, Lisa Anderson Intuit, Irene Au Google, Edward Garana- Hoover’s Inc,Tjeerd HoekMicrosoft

How measure success?

  • Happy clients, designers, product success
  • Your designers sometimes make clients nervous (ask hard questions, push the envelope)
  • How often and early clients WANT to bring your team in

Desired skill set?

  • Ability to draw people in
  • People who “go all the way” and do what’s necessary, as opposed to just strictly what’s in their job description
  • People who can handle constraints
  • People who can accept feature cutting

How manage to “create” kick ass designers

  • Direct mentorship and coaching (don’t get too far from the product that you can’t give real and constant feedback)
  • Design reviews
  • Build a community- share best practices, makes sure teams work together

How deal with competing priorities of being tactical and strategic?

  • Must allocate part of your team to thinking ahead
  • One strategy is to put junior people on “production team” that deals with fast, less strategic projects that are still learning opportunities
  • Outsource

How communicate success & value of team to rest of company?

  • Bottoms up- “google tech talks”, toilet ads, build user-focused culture
  • Top down- product reviews, feed execs good UE questions to ask
  • Need inspirational UE leaders
  • Show execs users using the product
  • Create usability metrics and define what happens if you don’t meet them

What behaviors to avoid?

  • Telling people we “own” the design
  • Whining/ complaining
  • Never stop innovating & challenging

How attract & keep top talent?

  • First make sure you hire top designers AND employees
  • Identifying who you want is 50-60% of it
  • Learn to sell, understand what motivates someone and offer it
  • Share the glory- big/ good projects
  • Build a team from great junior people (hire from universities)
  • Get really good at interviewing- build a great interview team that is well trained at identifying the characteristics you’re looking for (and not looking for) & recruiting
  • Check references- people are usually quite honest about strengths and weaknesses
  • Know the behavioral skills you’re after-
  • Look for passion, intellect, relationship management skills

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sxswi talk: Dan Rather Interview

I was surprised by the chills I felt as Dan Rather walked into the auditorium for this interview with Jane Hamsher. Used to seeing him on the kitchen TV as my Mom prepared dinner growing up, it was really cool to actually see this icon in person. He spoke a lot about how disappointing journalists are today, how they’re not doing us any favors with their soft ball interviewing and unwillingness to ask the followup “wait, you didn’t answer my question”. He was quick to say he counts himself amongst them.

Dan Rather Interview

On Journalism today

  • “Current journalism needs a spine transplant”
  • Go along to get along
  • Worried about anti patriotic/ not supporting troops
  • Patriotic journalists SHOULD be asking the tough questions/ role of press is to question Power/ checks and balances
  • Get too close to the source/ negotiate/ get on my show, etc\Reporters use source & vice versa, a s soon as he’s a “part of the team” it’s gone to far
  • Do we still believe in Independent journalism/ investigative??? Sir, you didn’t answer the question.
  • Or are they a conveyor belt?
  • “Investigative reporting”- the term SHOULD be redundant
    • Endangered species
  • Corporations owning news orgs get bigger = news gets smaller
  • Ownership is distant from newsroom
  • What’s good for the corporation as a whole, not for news
  • Investigative reporting is likely to make someone important unhappy, less likely to help with legislation, etc
  • Competition in journalism good… but there’s increasingly less competition (5 companies control ~80% non internet news
  • Press needs to play a role of watchdog (not attack dog, but barks at everything suspicious)
  • Role has been shrinking

On the Internet

  • Beatles stage (after Elvis)
  • Anonymity is a concern- no accountability
  • Over time, marketplace will balance this

“On the record” rant

  • Sideways dance, no one says “the governor said this, but it’s a lie”
  • “On the record” “on background” “on deep background” “off the record” guidelines have changed, used to be the onus of the source to ask, start with the assumption of on the record
  • What are the new rules? How can we keep our integrity with viewers
  • Only way to reach consensus is to have a informed citizens- basics of democracy
  • The American way- give me the truth, let me decide
  • People who write in to the news agencies with feedback (approval of an “investigative” reporter) are actually heard/ make a difference

Wrap up

  • TV can make important events seem smaller than they are (contained in small screen), HD helps with somewhat (plug his company)
  • Have to stop thinking of the USA as center of the universe… we’re at the point of being world leaders… things that happen far away are important and REAL and matter, feel like a video game
  • Currently works for HDnet-

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sxswi talk: Getting Unstuck

Get Unstuck panel Turns out some of the best talks were in the first morning timeslot… sad given how late the evening events went at this conference. Getting Unstuck was a really awesome panel with this unfortunate timeslot… but they managed to keep me engaged (and awake) and I ended up taking copious notes full of great ideas about working with stakeholders, finding inspiration, keeping momentum going, selling your designs..

Liz Danzico- Daylife, Kristian Bengtsson- FutureLab, Chris Messina- Citizen Agency, Luke Wroblewski- Yahoo!, Jeffrey Zeldman- Happy Cog

How can we stay innovative and “unstuck”?

  • Put all early work online, ask others to take and expand and repost, very successful (Firefox ex.)
    • Everything out in the open as early as possible
    • Management through conversation
      • Talk a ton before design phase (Batman ex)
      • Hear what people are actually saying, really listen
      • Don’t focus too much on process… get to what users need, despite process
    • Keep info flowing in (ideas, thoughts, inspiration)
      • Data, trends
      • Keep getting the ideas out there & get feedback
      • Write things down so you can think them through
      • Feedback loop- stuck is when it stops
    • Accept constant change, be fearless and have fun
      • “Better to be flamboyant failure than mediocre success”
      • Intention + dialog/ context= success
    • “5 dysfunctions of teams”
    • Showing weakness builds trust
    • Get unstuck by talking to other groups

    Publish to build trust! Get it out there so stakeholders know. This changes the conversation eventually (they start to think it’s their idea)

  • Get it out there- people can destroy and it’s reborn better
    • Find negative space in an idea
  • We are a soundbite culture, John Kerry ex- long verbose doesn’t soundbite quickly
    • Create soundbites that others can take up, articulate a goal about self and project- keep simple & repeat
    • People lose track, just work- need simple, brand goal to go back to

    In your head everything’s fluffy, round edges. Write it down, give to others to have others jump on- 1`% may be good

  • Add value via design process, principles
    • Don’t have to call it “design”
    • eBay ex- M&A create value with babblefish translator- “oh he’s valuable”
    • Help define the problem, don’t be afraid of menial tasks
    • Don’t “sell design”, just add value, without people even knowing he did the “design thing”
  • It’s all a political process, interpret and understand everyone’s goal and where they’re coming from
  • Need someone in an org thinking about shared understanding & trust
  • Small teams good
  • IA is a translator/ flight attendant/ prostitute to all stakeholders… make them feel loved and listened too- significantly before showing designs
  • Honesty and communication, listening- not just to users/ consider stakeholders as “users”. Show the “love”
  • Big companies value process, -can you add value when pitching work without talking process?
    • Party with them, get to know them, simple process
    • Show before an after of previous process
    • “Love process”- includes tough love- why what they’re doing is wrong
    • Most important is to get to know, listen
    • People being hired for way of thinking, NOT process
    • Tell client we understand your context, don’t know what we’ll do yet
    • It’s about a connection, need to know an audience to tell story, no boiler plate, use conversation to help define problem

Lightening round- 1 minute scenario questions for panel

    • Build to think mentality, continuous feedback look
    • Simplify
    • Clear vision
    • Be resourceful
    • Constraints are good
    • Have a need- not just an idea or dogma, empathy good
    • Learn from failure, & fail quickly

Final tips for getting unstuck

    • Listen, dialog, articulate simple goals
    • Communication, open feedback loop
      • Take feedback/ be open/ your idea can get better
      • “yes, and…”
    • Always have at least 1 person focused on solution, common factors instead of differences
    • Be fearless
    • Keep a user in mind- personalized
    • Think about what it’s like to get beers after with client- what’s success? what have you achieved?
    • Common context, make execs responsible for culture

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