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SXSW 2007 Trip Report

June 25th, 2007 · No Comments

I once heard someone call South by Southwest “spring break for geeks.” Well, there’s nothing like empirical evidence, so I tagged along with the Lulu.com community team to investigate South by Southwest (SXSW) for myself. Held annually in Austin, TX, SXSW is a film festival, music festival, and “interactive” festival all rolled in to one multi-week extravaganza. Actually, only the film and interactive bits coincide. The music festival is so big it needs the whole city to itself.

What’s the appeal of SXSW for a designer? Well, the conference schedule is an interesting mix of themes, including web design, user experience, gaming, and business. Keynotes ranged from customer experience guru Kathy Sierra to game designer Will Wright. And then there are the parties. If you’re a large (and hip) web company these days, you’re sponsoring a party at SXSW. Sometimes more than one. Yahoo, Google, Mozilla, eBay, PayPal, and cnet we’re all paying bar tabs this year. Interestingly, there were a number of small and medium web companies banding together to put on parties as well.

I spent a good deal of time in the Lulu booth, but I was able to sneak away once or twice a day to sessions.

When JavaScript and Ajax Go Bad

My first session was rather disappointing. “When JavaScript and Ajax Go Bad” was a discussion of the “right way” to improve web user experiences with JavaScript. In particular, there was a lot of discussion of graceful degradation and progressive enhancement, with the speakers taking the stand that a website should always work without JavaScript. While I’m sympathetic to this stance, I would have like to see some acknowledgement that in practice it can be very hard to achieve. Overall the session was a good overview of enhancing web interactions with JavaScript, but didn’t explore the topic very far.

High Class and Low Class Web Design

The second panel I attended delved into the topic of class in design. Examples of “high class” design included BMW, Apple, and the NY Times while examples of “low class” design included Walmart, Fox News, and WWE. The topic quickly turned to the importance of context in design — know thy user. Khoi Vinh, design director at NYTimes.com stated outright that without a design “visionary” like Steve Jobs, you needed research and analytics to know your audience. However, it was noted that simply “knowing” your user may not even be enough, you had to empathize with them. The more emotional distance between the designer and the audience, the less likely the design is to succeed. The audience questions raised two interesting ideas: How do you take your audience outside of their design “comfort zone?” And is there an analogue to social mobility in design?

Why We Should Ignore Users

This session was largely a discussion of Donald Norman’s “activity-centered design” idea form his now-famous “Human-Centered Computing Considered Harmful” article in Interactions. More specifically, the panelists discussed the problems with eliciting user needs and motivations via self-report techniques. People are notoriously bad at knowing what they really want, and a large part of the user experience in any system is subconscious. There was a great deal of discussion about the utility of personas, though it was eventually conceded that the technique was god in theory if not yet in practice.


“Valleyspeak” was a panel focused on running a tech business outside Silicon Valley. The panelists were independent web designers by trade, and the discussion focused in large part on web tools for collaboration, billing, project management, and development. They also mentioned the benefits of events like SXSW for maintaining contacts with other independent designers and developers (your “tribe”), and touched a bit upon the idea of “co-working.” Co-working is where multiple small businesses or individuals share work space, as a co-worker you get to a out-of-the-house office, shared administrative expenses, and the opportunity to have office mates without the hassle of actually having to work with them. This was a 30-minute panel, and there wasn’t much time for questions or discussions. I was hoping for something more than a “my favorite web apps” session, but they did mention a number of useful tools, the list is available online at http://buildingblocks.pbwiki.com.

Create a Kick-Ass In-House Design Team

There was a lot of good discussion in this panel about building (and keeping) a good design team, and two points in particular stood out to me. First, that a design team needs a production support team to help build prototypes and explore design ideas. Obviously this isn’t feasible for a lot of design teams, but I can really see the utility in this. An alternative would be to give a smaller design team enough time to prototype ideas within the team — obviously this only works for teams with some development skills. The second point that intrigued me was the emphasis many panelists placed on the need for a high-level voice in the organization. This could something as high as a C-level executive, or a director who is involved in planning.

Spring Break For (Web) Geeks

So is it “spring break for geeks?” I have to say that’s a pretty good description. The panels I attended were generally good, but only one or two were exceptional. I like that almost half of the schedule was selected by the conference goers. The conference is very much of-the-moment (Twitter was everywhere), and very much web focused. “Design” in the context of SXSW always means web design and web user experience. The main theme of SXSW seems to be meeting people, catching up with friends from around the country, and parties. As someone who designs for the web and finds more and more of their time using the web instead of a desktop computer, I found the discussions at SXSW engrossing. I enjoyed my trip and would definitely go again given the chance.

Originally published in the June 2007 Triangle UPA newsletter

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