What I Learned at SXSW

This is a list of 10 ideas I took away from the 2010 South by Southwest Interactive Conference (plus one thing I already knew), with notes and links to more information. Presentation slides to accompany these notes are available on SlideShare.

1. Wireframing and prototyping: how to do my job better.

As one session’s title put it, “nobody loves a wireframe.” Communicating about a website’s layout and functionality is not easy, and the standard tool – the wireframe – is not always the best way to help stakeholders understand the proposed design and make good decisions. Wireframes (when done the right way), storyboard sketches, and prototypes can help to put the focus where it matters most: on user interactions.

2. Behavioral psychology is the latest trend in web design.

With the web becoming more and more competitive, it’s no longer enough to have a nice site that does a few cool or useful things. To attract users, keep their attention, and turn them into loyal repeat visitors, web designers are looking beyond usability to ideas from behavioral psychology. Challenges, feedback, rewards, playfulness, and creating a sense of ownership are among the techniques used to construct persuasive interfaces and seductive interactions.

3. The next phase in the evolution of search is all about context.

Google is ubiquitous and indispensable – so how can search get better? The immediate answer seems to be: by factoring whatever is known about the user into the results. What’s most relevant to you depends on who you are and when and where you’re doing a search. Google is already using cookies to personalize search results. Data from news sources, blogs, and social networks can fine-tune relevance to reflect whatever aspect of a topic is dominating online conversations at a particular moment in time. Most significant is the increasing use of geo-location data to present results based on the user’s spatial coordinates, a trend that’s driving explosive growth in the field of mobile search.

4. Mobile is the future, and the future is now.

I didn’t need to attend a session to pick up on this idea – it was all around me at SXSW. Laptops appear to have gone the way of the Commodore 64. Instead, everyone had a smart phone (usually an iPhone) welded to their hand, and the air was electric with texts and tweets. The smart phone has reached a tipping point where it can do almost everything well enough to make a laptop seem like five pounds of redundancy that won’t fit in your pocket when you head to the bar at 5 o’clock. (Which bar? Pull up FourSquare on your phone.)

5. There are lots of interesting possibilities for connecting physical objects to the Internet.

Moderator John Tolva kicked off the session “The City is a Platform” by citing a Gartner report‘s prediction that by the end of 2012, 20% of non-video traffic on the Internet will originate from sensors in the built environment. Buildings, roads, vehicles, and utilities are being equipped with monitoring devices that send signals into a rich web of real-world data. This has huge implications for the future of urban planning (and also hopefully for us as commuters being able to know how soon the next streetcar will arrive at our stop). On a smaller scale, the use of barcodes and RFID tags to link individual objects or products to the Internet seems poised to take off. QR codes, sometimes called physical hyperlinks, are showing up on billboards, newspapers, and business cards. And augmented reality may make even the barcodes unnecessary.

Hacking the City by John Tolva and Daniel X. O’Neil

6. Privacy still matters, but it’s about control over the flow of information.

Danah Boyd is an ethnographer who researches online behaviour. Her studies have found that, contrary to what some media coverage suggests, Internet users – including the younger “born digital” generation – do care about privacy. But where in the past social consensus drew a bright line between private and public realms, people now view privacy as a matter of individual choice, with each of us deciding what we are comfortable sharing and with whom. Instead of having systems and institutions make decisions for them, people want control over the flow of their own information.

7. Legal issues around content have become the most significant barriers to the Internet’s growth.

Standards are the foundation of the Internet. A common set of protocols has made it possible for us to share information on an unprecedented scale, to the point where our ability to share has outstripped the legal framework governing ownership of content. Joi Ito argued that the Internet can’t achieve its full potential as a communications medium until we develop a system for the exchange of content as flexible and universal as the technical interoperability that has made the Internet work. According to Jaron Lanier, current efforts to protect the rights of creators too often result in closed systems or “walled gardens” where digital rights management ties content to a specific device.

8. The publishing industry is facing massive, disruptive change (and appears to be totally unprepared for it).

The publishing industry seems ripe for radical reinvention. According to statistics quoted at the panel A Brave New Future for Book Publishing, 80% of books do not earn back the money spent to bring them to market and 40% of printed copies are returned unsold. The emergence of new ebook formats and devices could be an opportunity to lower costs and attract new audiences, but so far most publishers have approached the ebook market with caution, if not outright fear. The industry seems to be headed for the kind of turbulence that afflicted the music industry, with battles between producers and distributors over pricing and a heavy-handed implementation of digital rights management technology that frustrates users and risks driving them to illegal downloading.

9. The biggest issue on everyone’s minds is: who is going to make money, and how?

Even if it’s not explicitly acknowledged, the hope of making money animates many of the big ideas circulating at SXSW. For years now, some tech companies have enjoyed stratospheric stock valuations without going to the trouble of turning a profit (or in some cases, even having a business model). Maybe the recession has dampened everyone’s exuberance, but the concern over revenues seems to have become more pressing. SXSW attendees flocked to a session where Twitter’s CEO was expected to unveil a revenue model for the service, then walked out en masse when the announcement turned out to have nothing to do with making Twitter profitable. Other much-discussed sessions focused on the fate of traditional media, who have seen their profits cannibalized by free online news. “Media Armageddon: What Happens When the New York Times Dies?” sparked debate about whether or not the Times’ upcoming implementation of a metered payment model will help bring in enough money to sustain the paper’s tradition of high-quality journalism. Meanwhile, the race to take advantage of the mobile apps boom is starting to look like a bubble that will produce a few winners and plenty of losers.

10. Many people involved in technology see it as a powerful force for positive social change.

Running counter to the profit imperative at SXSW is a strong undercurrent of techno-utopian and techno-progressivist ideas. Valerie Casey gave a keynote address about how designers can lead the sustainability movement. Conference attendees were encouraged to participate in a “virtual brainstorm” to end hunger in America. Even the wireframing workshop I attended chose to focus on redesigning a not-for-profit website that arranges micro-loans for people with no health insurance. In a survey asking SXSW registrants, “Do you believe that there is a technology-related solution to the biggest challenges facing the human race?”, 63% answered yes. While the more grandiose visions can trigger reflexive cynicism, it would be sad to think that the reach and power of the Internet can achieve nothing more than a viral marketing campaign for Pepsi. I was left feeling fortunate to have a job that (sometimes, on good days) puts technology to work for the greater good.

And one thing I already knew: The digital divide is still with us.

If SXSW is The Jetsons, librarians Jessamyn West (MetaFilter) and Jenny Engstrom (New York Public Library) put on a session that could have been called  Meet The Flintstones. Judging from the Twitter commentary, How the Other Half Lives: Touring the Digital Divide was an eye-opener for many SXSW attendees, even though the news was sadly familiar to the librarians in the audience. Millions of people rely on library computers. In rural areas and among economically-disadvantaged urban populations, the public library is the primary broadband Internet access point – and libraries are struggling to meet demand with too few computers, outdated software (yes, IE6 lives on at other libraries besides TPL), and inadequate bandwidth. Some of the best points in the presentation dealt with the challenges that complex, flashy, and text-heavy websites pose for users with low Internet literacy.

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