SXSWi recap

Gettin’ Bizzy with Pair Design

I went to SxSW Interactive to give a next-version talk about Pair Design with fellow Cooperista Suzy Thompson. It was much improved from the first draft, which was delivered in Amsterdam earlier this year at Interaction14, and the audience was a smart group of deeply engaged designers. (Shouts out to everyone who attended.)


Image by Senan Ryan

If you’re interested in seeing that presentation but couldn’t attend, maybe you’ll be able to attend when we present it again for the IXDAsf: ReDUX on April 26th.

Though a lot of people insisted that SxSW is about the parties, I was able to attend 6 sessions and, OK, at least one awesome party worth mentioning in a blog post.

1. Penicillin 2.0: Sensor-driven health

Gadi Amit talked about his work on wearables at his company New Deal Design. Specifically he covered four issues that have played into FitBit: Sizing, fit, gender, and sociability all matter a great deal. It was nifty to hear the intersection of persuasive design and wearable tech.

2. Reorientating [sic] UX for the Internet of Things

With lots of good examples and a tight presentation, Alfred Lui covered some ways that UX has to adapt its process in a world where everything is connected to the net: Things are now more like ambient services, and to design for them is to design for being in the persona’s background rather than the foreground of attention. I’m a little concerned about his assertion that users are perfectly happy to give up privacy in exchange for enough value, but he seemed confident about it.

3. The Future of Genetics in Our Everyday Lives

The title of Anne Wejcicki’s keynote is misleading. This was a pitch for the audience to join her company’s service 23 and Me. She presented some good reasons, both selfish and altruistic, but with the recent FDA cease & desist, it was hard not to see it as a charming advertisement rather than a real glimpse the future.

4. A Conversation with George Takei

My relationship with sci-fi and social issues led me to the George Takei interview. It was a talk show format with Matthew Segal. Aside from a plug for his new YouTube show Takei’s Take, it didn’t contain any new information or anecdotes, but it was great to be reminded of his rich backstory (did you know he spent part of his youth in an American WW2 prison camp?) and political efforts to forward gay rights. Way to live an awesome life, George.

5. From Rosie to Siri: Shifting perspectives in robotics

If you have a mental model of robots as metal people, Cooper doesn’t do robotics. But if you listen to David Reeves of 22 Squared, he’ll point out that this is just a sci-fi trope. That is, any automated system that works on behalf of a person is a robotic system, and is unproductively constrained by the anthropocentrism. With that in mind, it turns out Cooper does (and maybe you do) robotics all the time. It was nice to hear a bit on confirmation of some of the anthropomorphism assertions made in Make It So, too.

6. Closing Remarks

Bruce Sterling is more up to date on current socio-technological events than most anyone, and his wrap up was a provocative list of those folks who really should have been at South by Southwest but weren’t. (As well as a few jabs at the audience. We still love you, Bruce.) They include the notorious right-wing French politician NKM as well as notorious “x-ray invisible” 3D gun-printing Libertarian Cody Wilson. Bruce is right. This roster would, in fact, be a much more interesting conference, that would have a lot more people pissed off and perhaps motivated.

Go, Éire!

Suzy and I made it to the Irish party with my friend Senan Riain, to drink Guinness, have a great time, and talk to his team from IDA Ireland about the opportunities of hiring out any of the talented workforce over in Ireland. I was fondly reminded of Interaction12 in Dublin, and learned that a pop music harp isn’t really audible over the roar of a bunch of partiers.

On reflection

I have a long history with the conference. When I was a young business co-owner, my small company participated in the second-ever Interactive track and I have been attending and presenting off and on since then. (Maybe this is why I can’t bring myself to call it “Southby” unless I simultaneously mock that abbreviation by pronouncing it like an English manor: “SUTH-beh.”) My reflections on the conference take into account that long history. This year I was struck by several things overall.

The conference has grown to monstrous proportions, which, you know, good on it, but it’s also suffering under its own weight. Because it’s too big to fit into the Austin Convention Center, and even too big to fit into adjacent hotels, the venues are spread across the entire city. Though there are taxis, bike taxis, and even Chevrolet’s free Ride-a-Chevy cars to get you where you need to go (genuinely useful and a chance to experience/critique the onboard interface), traffic is too bad, attendees are too hung over, and timelines too tight to bother heading much beyond the epicenter of 4th and Congress. I missed the gaming booths in the Trade Show. Some of the sessions I attended seemed much less full, given their cool topics, than I’d expect them to be. Is to SxSW become JUST about the parties? I hope not. They can be loud.

It was the presence of the eSurance booth, having pride of place right near the main entrance, that struck me the most. It has nothing to do with Film, Music, or Interactive, except via an overgenerous stretch of the imagination. It says to me that first, yes, SxSW must pay what must be a massive bill, but also that it’s too big to ignore the money of unrelated advertisers. We’re eyeballs ripe for impressions. As a result, it’s getting more difficult to suss out some
signal amidst all the noise
. One attendee described it to me as, “Spring break for business extroverts, sponsored by Taco Bell.” (In full disclosure I’m pretty sure Taco Bell was not a sponsor, but you see his point.)

Flying away from the city—its streets still raging with the music festival in full gear—and back to my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, of course I realize SxSW is not going to downsize. It’s going to keep going. So this is important to know how to frame your time there: If IxDA’s Interaction conference is for speaking to your interaction design peers, SxSW is about speaking to some old friends, and then everyone else in the industry : developers, business people, et al. It’s not about talking to them about just what you do, but what you could do together.

And yes, fine, about that cool band playing just next door.

Til next time, Sx(SW).

Chris Noessel

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