SXSW Top 10

In our world there are lots of tech conferences. But only one worth making a 20 hour pilgrimage to. The biggest and best – South-by-South-West. Our Creative Director James Jefferson shares his experiences of this year’s conference in Austin, Texas.

In our world there are lots of tech conferences. But only one worth making a 20 hour pilgrimage to. The biggest and best – South-by-South-West. Our Creative Director James Jefferson shares his experiences of this year’s conference in Austin, Texas.

Image 1

Image 1

When in Austin...

I've been back for a few days now and the jetlag is thankfully starting to abate.

Now that I'm back at my desk, I thought it'd be great to share my reflections on this giant and massively inspiring event. With literally hundreds of events, panels, discussions and keynotes to choose from, the conference is pretty bewildering. So what better way to boil it down than to create a Top 10?

So here it is, my personal Top 10 from SXSW 2013:

1. The Maker Revolution

Bre Pettis, Makerbot founder, opened the interactive portion of the conference with a talk about the impact Makerbot is having across many industries. Their biggest customer is now NASA! He also premiered the Makerbot Digitiser which means you can now scan a 3D object in 3 minutes and print out copies of it on your Makerbot! And all this is now at a price you can buy for your home.

The amazing thing is that the ease of access to this technology means that brands can make their product development more agile, get products to market faster and less expensively, and gives them the potential even to create personalised products - for example, Makerbot themselves have recently opened a store in New York where you can scan yourself and custom make a Legoman head in your own image.

2. Wearable tech

Jennifer Darmour is the wearable technology expert at Artefact, a product design consultancy from Seattle, and is passionate about making wearable tech, well, wearable. Her experiments are part of the 'Quantified Self' movement but she has successfully applied great user experience understanding to make these products appealing and intuitive.

I see the wearable tech theme as something that is going to grow fast over the next couple of years and represents a real challenge for how brands interact with people. The answer partly lies in the way products like Nike Fuelband sits within their ecosystem. It's a functional product but it actively works as a gateway to other Nike products encouraging you to exercise more, and through its digital interface, creating the opportunity to buy via their dedicated E-com channel. Many businesses might be able to apply this concept of delivering a utility that connects people to their brand ecosystem to enable greater engagement and the potential to share the experience.

3. Reinventing the mouse

Michael Buckwald and David Holtz are the creators of Leapmotion. Leapmotion is a new controller device that reads the natural motion of your hands and allows you to interact with virtual content as if you were really touching it. The level of detail it can pick up, within the 2 square foot scannable area, is accurate enough to recognise your hand- yes, with this technology your hand may become your password. We've ordered ours and are looking forward to experimenting with what is surely going to be a game changer. Out of the box it plays nicely with your operating system, lots of 3d modelling packages and games including fruit ninja. Watch this space.

4. Tackling the world's biggest problems

Elon Musk is a bit of a hero of mine. Despite creating the horrible beast that is Paypal (speaking from a UX perspective) he has not rested on his laurels after selling it for $1.5billion. He was interviewed in front of a packed, enthralled room of 3000 people. He described with deep insight and understanding, the three businesses he has gone "all in" on. Spacex, already the first commercial space exploration business to dock at the international space station; Tesla, the car company that's on the verge of revolutionising transportation; and Solar City, the innovative solar power business. I think everyone in the room felt terribly unproductive in comparison.

5. Machines that adapt to us

Golden Krishna is a senior UX designer at Samsung. He talked about his desire to curtail what he sees as our obsession with screens. Through examples like a BMW iPhone App controlled locking system, he demonstrated that in many cases we're applying a screen when we are able to be a little smarter.

Employing a combination of good user insight and intelligent tech we can create systems that react and adapt to us rather than forcing us to work around them. The best two examples he cited were the Ford Liftgate system and the Nest Home Thermostat. The first enables owners to open the boot without using their hands, because they're likely to be carrying the thing they want to put in it. The second learns how to manage the heat in your house so you don't have to interact with it.

The takeaway here is that through really insightful design we can create products that understand our needs rather than forcing us to navigate through an ever growing array of menus and forms in order to communicate with them.

6. The future is Glass

Timothy Jordan from Google demonstrated the first big piece of wearable tech that's launching soon. Google Glass was kind-of the elephant-in-the-room throughout the conference. With questions about it being posed to almost every speaker, it was clear everyone was hungry for a demo. Well this was it.

Despite appearing to have been descoped to get it to market, Glass is clearly a beautiful product with a very well thought-through user interface. Google has done what it does well and kept things really simple.

When launched later this year, Glass will represent the beginning of a new way to interact with people and content. Combined with products like Google Now, it will be way more connected to our lives than any other device has been in the past. This paradigm shift will really challenge the types of experiences brands offer their consumers. We are really excited to begin experimenting with this.

7. Social media IS a force for good

Andy Smith showcased his book, The Dragonfly Effect, in a short morning session. To me, this short presentation, that referenced detailed research, laid-out a neat formula for success with social media campaigns that didn't fall back on marketing jargon. An approach I'm keen to try in practice.

The approach references the four wings of dragonfly:

  1. Develop a clear idea - A higher purpose with a clear action or goal

  2. Reverse the rules - Changing the rules makes it noticeable

  3. Tell a good (truthful) story - People care about human stories

  4. Design for collaboration - encourage others to build on the idea

Simple, right. I really liked these principles, they sound simple but they each represent a real challenge to anyone developing their ideas for a brand's social media engagement strategy.

8. Foursquare has moved on

Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was in attendance to talk about how Foursquare is developing. Foursquare, in turns out, has been quietly reinventing itself. Moving away from a location-based social network toward really "making cities easier to use".

Moving away from a focus on rewarding check-ins, they are now starting to leverage the power of the data collected from all the services that use their API (Path, Vine, Flickr, Instagram etc). This shift puts the focus on a check-in as Social POI. The more check-ins, the more interesting the place is. So not only does Foursquare's data make POIs interest-based but it's self-cleansing and, most powerfully, personalisable.

On this subject, Denis may have hinted at a future partnership with one of the big map engines to augment their POI dots with trending locations, or locations that my friends recommend for example.

All very interesting for anyone who wants to promote their location - how can you make sure your consumers put you on the map?

9. The open game console

The fact that Julie Uhrman was able to Kickstart OUYA raising over $8m in such a short time suggests that she hit a nerve when she asked people to support her in "cracking open the last closed platform: the TV".

The Android-based product is a neat little media console, mainly focused on gaming, that's completely open source and hackable. Games will all be free to try.

Should it be a success when it launches mid-year, OUYA could open up a wave of innovation in gaming and perhaps offer an opportunity for brands to create deeper engagement with consumers.

10. Designing education

Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman are very vocal about the fact that design education is producing too many people that are not employable. Rather excitingly, they have resolved to fix it. Exciting because there's been a lot of talk on this subject but, until now, not a lot of action. Well, these guys have designed an education structure that is agile, collaborative and, most importantly, connected to practice to make sure that the ever-changing needs of businesses are met in the graduates' abilities.

The proposed structure, is for a two-year course made up of blocks of 3 week projects. The project structure looks like this:

  • workshop for 2 days - with professionals

  • individual project work for the next 3 days

  • team project for 2 weeks

All of this will be working in close collaboration with professional mentors rather than having them parachute in at beginning and end. As a result the assessment will be decided on by the professional mentor too.

For me, this is really exciting. This is an innovative course structure that should give much better opportunities to its students as well as offering the opportunity for business to shape the abilities students graduate with.

We wish them all the best!

So that's it. That's my top 10. I hope you enjoyed it.

It's a pretty wide range of stuff but I think it's fairly representative of the themes of the conference. At least the ones I felt were important.

As you may have picked up, I think the innovations this year point to a very interesting period. I'm already looking forward to next year when we'll see how these ideas have developed. And in the meantime, we're going to be busy implementing, or experimenting with, some of the things we experienced in Austin this year.