In case you didn’t make it to SXSW in person (image via shelbysdrummond)
The Breakdown: It’s been a week, and we’ve just about recovered from SXSW. This year we asked Amy Todenhagen to share her thoughts on her first foray to Austin for the biggest interactive extravaganza of the year. Amy is an Associate User Experience Director at Razorfish in NYC. She and her colleague, Neal Gorevic, led a discussion on the role of digital technology in urban mobility at SXSW 2012 (“Connected Cars, Connected Cities and Urban Driving”).
Rachel told me that I would be overwhelmed. Still, I was stunned by the number of people, the amount of information, and the extent of activity that surrounds the SXSW conference. As a first-time conference attendee and a first-time presenter I threw myself into the experience. Here is a summary of themes from the presentations, panels and conversations that I attended.
Combine the expected and the new
With multiple channels and multiple voices, it is difficult for brands to maintain a consistent message and provide value. Several presentations addressed this issue and offered solutions. My favorite was one titled “Brands as Patterns.” The panelists in this session put forth the idea that a consistent brand today can only be achieved by creating patterns. These patterns should be:
- distinctive (ownable, signature expressions)
- relevant (personal, meaningful)
- active (delivering, doing, moving)
The pattern language should also always follow a consistent story. While the channel and goal of the communication may change, a tightly defined story framework, and an ownable pattern language, can convey a focused brand.
The power of patterns as a branding element was best demonstrated by Walter Werzowa (@walterwerzowa), a composer on the panel. He illustrated, by breaking down Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, that repeating the same series of notes would be boring but varying the basic motive resulted in emotion and engagement. With brands, as in music, one needs the right combination of what is expected and what is new to convey an engaging message over time. See the slides from this panel for more information.
David Hogue (“The Complexity Curve: How to Design for Simplicity”) and David Womack (“Does Your Product Have a Plot?”) stressed the importance of combining the expected and the new in interface design. Simplicity (the expected) drives ease of use, while emotion (the new) creates meaningful complication that keeps the user engaged by providing a more interesting and valuable experience.
How does emotion translate into digital product design? David Womack’s recommendation was to give digital products a plot and to tell a story with the experience. He used the example of an e-commerce site to illustrate his point. An ecommerce site starts with an introduction of the characters (shopping online), progresses to conflict (they don’t have what I want), builds to a climax (let’s try this out) and ends with resolution (your online purchase shows up in actual physical space). Check out the Unified sketch notes from Womack’s talk.
As a UI designer it isn’t totally clear to me how this story pattern can translate into many of the experiences that I am trying to build. What did resonate with me is that conflict and climax in interaction design can increase user engagement. As with music and brands, interface design needs the right combination of simplicity and meaningful complexity (what is expected and what is new) to maximize engagement.
Design for data
The importance and difficulty of data was also a reoccurring theme this year. Panelists in “Data is the New Oil: Wealth and Wars on the Web” encouraged businesses and entrepreneurs to disrupt the status quo through innovative use of data. However several barriers were discussed:
- Data ownership: ambiguous rights to data
- Privacy: the difficultly of making data truly anonymous
- Unintended consequences: politicizing, and misinterpretation of data
- Data exhaust: filtering out irrelevant data
- Data acquisition: getting ahold of data from institutions that are reluctant to release it
As a user experience practitioner I walked away from these discussions with two things to think about:
- Data is an extremely valuable commodity. How can we incentivize users to provide the data necessary to build our products? What can we give back to the user that adds value, but also respects their privacy?
- Gathering data is difficult. When designing products, we should optimize the points of data capture to insure that the information gathered exactly meets the product goals. Our interfaces should be capturing the right data, not all data.
Be a good citizen
No theme was more interesting to me personally than the role of citizens in developing digital solutions for the public good. In panels like “Austin 2032: Shaping Future Cities with Mobile Data,” representatives of government at many levels came to the conference to inspire the SXSW community to solve problems in the public sector. Several roles for citizens were outlined:
- Donating data
- Collecting data on behalf of the city
- Championing projects and persuading government agencies to release data
- Taking jobs in public service
- Donating time or money to develop digital solutions
In one of the SXSW keynotes, Jennifer Pahlka (@pahlkadot), founder of Code for America, rallied the community to get excited by government. “You guys have this exuberance, this willingness to experiment… [and] if you see something that’s broken, you want to fix it.”
She highlighted that as a nation, we spend $140 billion a year on government technology, many times more than what Apple pays out to developers of apps per year (about $2 billion). Pahlka acknowledged that the tech community isn’t interested in working with the government because of the difficulties and bureaucracy that comes with it. She stressed, however, that government is changing and highlighted cities and communities that are bringing more innovation to government and making more public data available through APIs.
Startups can focus more on civic software. Citizen programmers can contribute to building a better government by writing code. Pahlka reminded the audience that government is what we do together. We are not just consumers of government, we are citizens. You can hear the full recording of her keynote speech, “Coding the Next Chapter of American History,” online. Also keep an eye out for recordings from an impassioned conversation between Sean Parker (of Napster fame) and Al Gore.
That wraps up what I learned at the actual SXSW conference this year. As you may have heard already, or know yourself from attending, the official presentations and panels are only part of the South by experience. I was blown away by people, conversation and energy at the conference and reminded, once again, of how exciting it is to work in the field of digital technology today.