Phil and I went down to SXSW Interactive last week with the best of intentions, despite being concerned about the quality of the on-line experience before flying down to Austin on 3/10 and wondering if it was a harbinger of things to come. It was and it wasn’t, but it mostly was.
As those of us who were there know, and perhaps much to the chagrin of those who weren’t, there’s a lot of chatter about SXSW on the social networks – a lot of it along the lines of…
“I’m having the best time ever!” or “I’m having lunch with @pixelgeek24 and we’re going to conquer the world! We’re ninjas/rockstars/superheroes! W00t!”
That’s all fine and good, and generally aligns with the typical self-promotion and non-wave-making that you’ll see clustered around conferences. We’re all guilty of it, and for a lot of folks that’s the whole point of engaging there in the first place.
But there’s a special kind of walking on eggshells that seems to happen around SXSW – because I found a totally different undercurrent of sentiment lurking in the physical realm that isn’t nearly as represented in the Twittersphere: being in Austin with a lot of like-minded folk has its definite positives and potential, but the conference itself is decidedly “iffy” (note: the health track held in the Hilton Garden Hotel was the one shining, glorious exception). In fact, I talked with several folk who probably wouldn’t want to go on record saying it, but who said that they’re seriously considering next time just coming to Austin during SXSW Interactive and not even registering for the conference (actually, if you read between the lines on Twitter, it was easy to see just how many were regularly out gallivanting during sessions already this time around).
Why might that be? Well, here are my top 5 reasons:
- Picking a valuable session is like trying to make your way through a minefield with your shoes tied together…after downing a 5th of Jack. Aside from the sheer tyranny of choice triggered by having to select one of 20 or more sessions occurring during each time slot, they’re also spread out all over the city – putting even more weight on making the right choice, and making it all the more painful when you choose…poorly. That happens to be an extremely easy thing to do – ranging from something that is probably decent but just isn’t as relevant to you as you thought it might be from the description, to someone with the presentation skills of a handball and/or really weak content. Give me a single-track powerhouse like An Event Apart any day, with vetted speakers and solid content – I know I’m going to walk away with value. The Russian Roulette at SXSW is brutal.
- This minefield has resulted in a culture completely accepting of getting up in the middle of talks and walking out, and then barging into other ones already in-progress. I guess I can’t blame people for this, and I must confess I walked out of a few sessions myself. But I was completely floored by the audacity of people walking into sessions I was genuinely interested in 45 minutes late…sitting down for 5 minutes…and then getting up and leaving again. In almost all of my sessions I endured a never-ending stream of KA-CLICK…KA-CLACK! – the doors opening and closing relentlessly. Again, it’s a symptom of #1, and while the symptom was treated at some sessions by volunteers trying to minimize the impact by holding the doors, it’s not getting at the disease.
- The whole thing is mind-numbingly commercial. You know when you’re walking down the strip in Vegas and there’s those people slapping postcards and pamphlets against their hands to get your attention, and when you make eye contact they accost you? Same deal, only with techy tchotchkes and other nerdy stuff of questionable value. Absolutely everything is sponsored and plastered with a logo…and that’s just a drag.
- The “must see” sessions that you know are going to be cool/interesting are so over-attended due to the size of the conference that it’s not even remotely enjoyable. I can’t think of too many reasons I’d submit to standing in a line that stretches for two blocks (and maybe for this reason I am getting old). But I’m definitely not doing it (again) to then be crammed into a tiny tent where people are packed shoulder to shoulder like an underage frat party, or to have the doors be closed in front of me because the venue is at capacity. If they curated the sessions better (while still keeping the important democratic element so it’s not all “celebrity” speakers) they could increase the size of the rooms and improve the experience greatly. And hey, while we’re at it, subtract a day, cut the session count in half, and see how that separates the wheat from the chaff.
- Bigger does NOT equal better. 25K+ people feels like being on a college campus when classes are changing. There’s nothing intimate, communal, or special about the way you feel racing from one session to the next, trying to find a place for lunch without a monster wait, or battling for a free power outlet. At least not the way the conference is run now. No wonder people elect to just step out of the flow and do it on their own terms (jeez, Seth Godin even does that at TED) – the conversations I had with folks outside of sessions were certainly the most valuable part of the experience…but I still genuinely like to be enlightened by a killer session.
OK, whew…I got that off my chest. I would have liked to see an honest review of SXSW Interactive before going because the experience wasn’t really in line with the chatter. Maybe this year was the turning point and it wasn’t always this way. But as I finished writing this I was informed that I’m not the only one saying some of these things…so I’m hoping the organizers are taking note and thinking long and hard about how to preserve the experience if they choose to keep growing – because it’s breaking.
Pssst – you’ve got our contact info if you want to fix that.
P.S. I’ll be posting a follow-up soon on the fantastic health track and the few outstanding sessions I did attend.
Back on March 11, Twitter announced that they would be modifying their API Terms of Service in such a way so as to discourage 3rd party Twitter clients in favor of their official client (if you’re interested in specifically how they changed it, check this out).
If I may be so bold as to assume your Legalese is as bad as mine, let’s boil this down to the key point: people are upset that Twitter is placing a previously non-existent restriction on third parties from creating a viable business replicating (or improving upon) the “original” method of displaying and creating Tweets.
Now let’s be clear, Twitter is perfectly within their rights to do this. There’s nothing that says they have to open up their API to anyone for anything, so on one hand any access they grant is icing on the 140-character cake. However, we also can’t forget the standard that Twitter set for itself by being so open from the get-go and the benefit they derived from that openness. It’s users who proposed the hashtag and original (not the new-ish) retweet conventions. It’s the near-universal availability of Twitter clients for all shapes and sizes that have allowed them to grow by almost a 100 million Tweets DAILY since last year.
Why is this so interesting to us at Think Brownstone? Twitter’s main argument for this more restrictive model is user experience. Read their official explanation for more detail, but the gist is that not everyone is implementing things consistently and that’s creating confusion for Twitter users. (As an aside, if you’re in the User Experience field, this is fantastic news…companies with multi-billion-dollar valuations are willing to risk ostracizing whole swaths of their most loyal users and supporters just to ensure a consistent user experience). This makes sense until you read later on (in the same official post) that “90% of active Twitter users use official Twitter apps” and that “the top five ways that people access Twitter are official Twitter apps….”
So we’re brought back to the classic walled-garden vs. open-source argument so readily apparent in the ongoing iOS vs. Android debate. Sure, Apple seems overly restrictive in forbidding people from changing button functionality (well, sometimes), but I would argue that it’s this level of control that allows them to create the most consistent and pleasurable modern operating system experience (be it mobile or desktop). On the other hand, I consistently find myself saying “my app doesn’t do that” whenever I compare different versions of the same app with my Android-owning friends (like Mike here at TBI).
The difference between Twitter and Apple is that Biz et al are now taking away some level of control that they’d previously ceded to the masses (whereas Apple has NEVER given us control)…and they’re doing so in a manner that pretty blatantly screams monetization. And hey, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Businesses need to make money to stay afloat. But if their official client is so successful and widespread, why stifle the possibility of innovation in third party clients? Let’s hope this isn’t a sign of things to come from what’s been an organization to admire in recent years.
When asked to list the tenets of good experience design, XDers count out things like “informative, intuitive, engaging, attractive” and they’ll almost always save their pinky point – the grand finale – for “fun.” Whatever the objectives, an experience is generally made richer and more effective if your users have a good time. But what about when fun is the antithesis of what you want to achieve?
Let’s take the prison system for example. Correctional Facilities, Reform Schools and Detention Centers are all pretty up front about their objectives (and not typically too concerned with the “fun factor”):
We’re going to correct you.
We’re going to reform you.
And perhaps the most honest…
We’re just going to detain you.
But let’s go even more old-school: what sort of experience design challenges might a “penitentiary” face? What does that name suggest about the objective of the facility? No matter how hard you try, you simply can’t penitent someone. Penitence has to come from within the user as a result of the prison experience. It’s the classic learning theory challenge – along the continuum of things you can teach someone designed to elicit behavioral change (declarative knowledge, concepts, psychomotor skills, and attitudes), the most difficult outcome to achieve is a genuine change in attitude.
So how would you engineer an experience such that it engenders remorse?
Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) offers a fantastic glimpse at one attempt to tackle this design problem. First off, if you haven’t visited ESP yet, you should definitely check it out. It’s a fascinating place. Architecture, environmental design, psychology, sociology and a host of other disciplines that now live under the XD umbrella were combined way back in 1829 to form a total user experience designed with the single objective of inspiring penitence. Prisoners were sentenced to solitary confinement, never seeing the face of another human, and subjected to complete silence. But they had natural light in their cells, they were allowed outside regularly, and they were given work to develop valuable trade skills. Think a monastic lifestyle absent the choice.
Ultimately the system failed, succumbing over time to the pressures of increased and improved functionality over the quality of the prisoner experience (sigh). Turns out penitence XD is an expensive business.
But what would you do if you were facing this design challenge today? What role would technology, human factors, cognitive science, theatre, interactive design and all of the other available XD disciplines play in your overall strategy?
We’d love to hear your thoughts, and if it’s a topic that really interests you – some great additional reading is Jim Lewis’s article about rethinking prison design published in the NY Times.