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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