An overview of SXSW 2012

Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 12:54 pm

It’s been almost a month now since SXSW Interactive wrapped up — but it really feels like it was much longer ago. Before my memories get too blurry, now seems a great time to put together an overview of what happened at South-By this year.

It was colder and wetter in Austin than London for the first three days. Not fair in the slighest.

Bigger

First and foremost: it was busy. Bigger. Much bigger! I heard various numbers about how much larger the attendance was. Someone in my hotel said there were 7,000 extra attendees this year. Day-to-day it was hard to notice this surge — it was only during the mammoth registration queue and equally mammoth queues to get into the after session parties that this really became apparent. The parties last year were fantastic — but I didn’t go to anywhere near as many this time because of the staggering wait times. But the upside of this was just enjoying local Austin bars and food — or being studious yet boring by going back to my hotel early to write up notes and ideas from the day.

…and better

Generally, as well as bigger, it was definitely better. The quality of the talks and panels this year were fantastic. Last year was great, but this year was greater. (Or I just chose better this year!)

Data is still a hot topic

The amount of presentations about data (and visualisation) were telling of what the SXSW organisers are thinking: that this is still a very important and topical subject. But a look at the titles of these presentations is also telling: sex sells. And so does putting ‘sexy’ and ‘data’ together in your panel idea. Sexy dirty data. Sexy data for public transit systems. Data is sexier than sex. Data is a sex machine — it honestly makes me wonder why the organisers didn’t create a special venue called the Data Bordello or something similarly flippant. If anything, the presence of ‘sexy’ in so many talks about data viz makes it clear that interest in the topic has definitely moved into the mainstream.

But what concerns me is the future of this mainstream interest in data viz: will it be more Hans Rosling or more chart junk saturation that is already dominating the web with 3mb high-res graphics with little or no value?

Science and design

While data visualisation wasn’t mentioned in Ben McAllister, many of the points he raised are very relevant. Specifically Ben discussed what he calls “scientism” – what feels like science, but it isn’t the real thing. We’re all both guilty of this and also victims of scientism in day-to-day life: making arguments (or fighting other arguments) by using pseudo-scientific reasoning. We’ve all done it: avoided something a client or stakeholder wants by saying ‘research’ or ‘testing’ showed it was ‘a bad idea’. Basically, so much of what we do in design is formed by pseudo-scientific method. User testing can be highly scientific and can be very insightful: but it’s also incredibly easy to skew results and taint the users being tested with what we actually want to hear. Ben has a great article on the topic on The Atlantic — definitely worth reading.

Interaction design as brand interaction

Another theme at SXSW was the idea of how interaction design is ultimately brand design. It cropped up in a few talks I saw, but specifically Marc Shillum really went into this at the panel he chaired entitled ‘Brands as Patterns‘. I’m still getting my head around the finer points, but I think it’s a very interesting concept — you can read more at the Method 10×10 site.

For example, something that occurred to me after the session: the Ryanair website is often criticized for its poor usability, poor design and shady-bordering-on-dark usability patterns. But thinking about Ryanair’s general brand, the interaction experienced on the website is an absolutely faithful interaction with Ryanair’s brand. The airline that wants to charge you a pound to use the toilet is of course going to hide ‘fees’ and ‘extras’ until the very end of the booking process.

Touch on the web

Josh Clark presented a brilliant talk on designing touch interfaces in Teaching Touch: Tapworthy Touchscreen Design. As someone who does most their work in a browser, Josh pointed out a very large elephant in the room: our standard interaction toolkits on the web are appalling behind their native mobile and tablet cousins. Even getting simple swipes working with jQuery is buggy at best — nevermind pinch, zoom and multi-finger gestures. How long before we can natively make use of these new touch gestures in the browser? It might be quite a while.

Sports and fandom in the digital world

I managed to catch some great presentations about how sport and fandom is changing in the face of social media and new technology. Not only was it a great mix of different sports and presenters from different countries, it was also very thought provoking. Ticketmaster now lets you find your Facebook friends at events so you can sit near them. This is just scratching the surface of how technology and social networks will change the sporting experience — and there are some very exciting opportunities here.

Free food

And most importantly, the best free food? Definitely the Turner Recharge Lounge, who served up incredible jalapeño chorizo and jalapeño gravy to boot. Absolutely delicious.

Now, how am I going to get to SXSW 2013…

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