What I learned from SXSW 2012 close

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott
In Codegent News, Musings
22nd March 2012
What I learned from SXSW 2012

I have just got back from my second South by South West Interactive conference and now the jet lag and hangover have passed I am reflecting on what I did and didn’t learn from the experience.

SXSW (as it is commonly abbreviated to) has grown rapidly over the last five years to become the biggest digital conference in the world. In terms of who’s who in the industry they are pretty much all in attendance along with about 25 000 wannabes, myself included.

The conference has expanded at such a rate that I think it may have outgrown Austin now. Logistically it is bursting at the seams and the quality of speaker content has definitely dropped due to the vast number of sessions occurring at any given moment. Sadly this means that the really good sessions are over subscribed.

But SXSW isn’t just about learning new stuff; it is about meeting people and making contacts. To that end I would say it was a success. I have returned from Texas with a bunch of great new industry contacts and friends in complimentary businesses that I am sure we will be working with in the future.

What was everyone talking about?

Bearing in mind that SXSW has previously been the making of Twitter and Foursquare buzz about hot new apps is one that everyone pays attention to. This year it was all about Highlight, Glancee and a handful of other location based services. These mobile apps tell you who is nearby and give you a glimpse of their profile, mostly fed by information supplied from Facebook.

I did use these apps myself, particularly at after parties, to get a sense of the type of people who were around me but I think most delegates found the apps a little invasive and probably inappropriate out of the conference environment. It looks like these products have a bit further to go before they become mainstream but I can genuinely see the next year being even more of a location based one.

What did I learn that I really already knew?

I actually quite like sitting in sessions where I learn nothing new. It reassures me that when I am advising clients I am giving them best practices and not just my own opinions.

Every UX designer bangs this drum repeatedly but yet again the advice coming from all of the User Interface Design panels was to keep your sites and apps simple to understand, useful and with minimal complexity.

This was most evident from Applying psychology to web design, a session hosted by Jason Hreha. Here he talked about the Fogg Behaviour Model, which dissects the factors involved in behavioural change:

  • Ability - are we asking the user for too much time, money, physical or mental effort, social deviance or are we breaking their routine? What is absolutely necessary? Scrap the rest.
  • Motivation - does the product demonstrably add value or solve a pain point? Are we motivating the user by rewarding incremental reward for interaction or engagement? (Such as a sign-up progress bar)
  • Triggers - do we have strong on-site calls to action or off-site prompts like well-timed emails or text messages?

Striking the right balance of these three will instigate behavioural change. All pretty much common sense but with a Stanford heavyweight expert in Persuasive Technology behind this can you really afford to ignore it?

What are the online business models of tomorrow?

You could argue that the winners of the Internet in the last 10 years or so were the platforms. Do you still fancy taking on Facebook, LinkedIn or Google at their own game? I would even be wary of that awesome mobile app idea you have unless it is a genuinely practical tool that lots of people will find useful.

So how can you win? APIs. The next generation of winners will be the guys that can collate data and make it useful or simplify otherwise complex functions and offer them up as APIs. Building an API for your service or to access your data adds a B2B offering that could be licensed to other sites for commercial use. Twilio has already done this very effectively with SMS and voice and I would keep an eye on the Geoloqi SDK mobile location project as well.

As platform convergence becomes increasingly common and standardised the API will be king. Got a problem or need some data? There’s an API for that.

In conclusion

I am not sure if I will head back to SXSW again in the future. London has some pretty strong conferences and an influential tech scene now. I think I could probably glean as much from them as I could from the good folk in Texas. Were you there? What did you think?