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SXSW 2010: Highlights and Trends

I’m fresh off the plane from South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive 2010 and still reeling from some of the amazing people I connected with and talks I checked out in Austin, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts of some of the top trends and highlights of SXSW this year. This year saw a record number of attendees – I heard as many as 17,000 (a 50% increase over last year’s 11,000) and you could see the difference everywhere.

Panels on user experience and social media were often at capacity, with long lines of people hoping to get in to catch the high-paced hour-long talks. SXSW’s notorious parties hosted by Foursquare, Gowalla, and Mashable and more saw the same surge in people, many even braving the rain on Monday night at the many outdoor venues to get a chance to network and, of course, get in on the open bar.

SXSW panels can be hit or miss. It’s a very loosely organized conference, where you can walk in (or walk out of) any session you’re interested in – no registration required. There’s over 400 sessions to choose from, and I typically had 5-6 really interesting panels to decide between in each time slot.

For me, this year saw a marked increase in the quality of panels I was able to check out. SXSW can be a good barometer for what types of things we can expect in the User Experience and Interactive worlds over the course of the year. It was most famous for the launch of Twitter several years ago, and startups have since capitalized on the massive event to make a major launch event, marketing push or announcement. Our local friends at Freshbooks and Rypple even got in on the action.

This year, at a keynote with Evan Williams, Twitter announced its @anywhere platform that will integrate Twitter into sites in a similar way that Facebook Connect does today, allowing users to more easily register, login and otherwise extend their social presence online.

Apart from this, several trends in the UX and Interactive spaces began to emerge several days into the conference.

Geosocial Apps

Foursquare and Gowalla, the geosocial applications that both used SXSW 2009 to launch, saw a huge surge in adoption at this year’s conference. They were initially met last year with a good deal of confusion, and the web app implementations made them difficult for users to grasp. I remember walking away with a green Gowalla t-shirt last year not really even knowing what it was (but admiring the cute line-drawn kangaroo they use as a logo).

This year, however, both companies launched new iPhone apps just days ahead of the conference with enhanced UI and interactions supported by specially designed badges and achievements for SXSW. Users signed up in droves and not an hour went by where you didn’t hear the words “check in”, “unlock” or “badge”. Attendees were often seen slinking over their iPhones, scrolling through their list of friends to see what sessions they were checking out, or the trending places as hundreds of people made their way from party to party after 5pm.

The rivalry between the two companies was clear even before the conference began. The feature sets of both have been enhanced and each has copied one another to a certain degree, so for me the deciding factor comes down to the user experience. Although Foursquare certainly has gathered a more solid critical mass of users, Gowalla was the standout for me this year, offering attendees a nice welcome banner the moment they touch down at Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport with links and locations to key SXSW events including badge pick-up and upcoming panels & parties (as shown above). Not so shockingly, SXSW awarded the the crown to Austin-born Gowalla over Foursquare at the SXSW Web Awards on Sunday night.

Neither application had been particularly useful for me at home here in Toronto up until SXSW, but that changed in Austin where they were great in tracking down friends and getting a sense for what was worth checking out at the conference and beyond. This worked only because I was a part of a very similar set of users with aligned goals, motivations and contexts for using the apps. I’m not so sure the usefulness of Foursquare/Gowalla will extend beyond SXSW unless you live in an urban area with a wired population; Like all social media, they won’t take off until your friends are on board.

They also have the not-so-simple task of assuaging users concerned with privacy that Danah Boyd so eloquently made a great case for in her keynote early on in in the conference. Provided Foursquare, Gowalla and others can address these issues, the opportunity for these companies to add the ‘where’ to our vocabulary of ‘who/what/when/why’ established by Facebook and Twitter presents an interesting opportunity to make more serendipitous social discoveries.

Content Strategy

As Dave pointed out yesterday, Content Strategy (CS) is seeing a major push as the “next big thing” in User Experience. A relatively new niche in UX, a Content Strategist ideally is brought in early on a project, working in tandem with the client and Information Architect do to audit what type of information a site will contain, and what forms it will take on. This Content Strategist has attributes of both an Information Architect and a Copywriter, and has the ability to weave a brand’s story into the structure of a site through different forms of content, including text, images, video, infographics and more.

How do you plan for the future if you don’t know what you currently have – or need?

It was clear at SXSW that this was a subject that was close to many of our hearts. Content Strategists Margot Booomstein (slides), Rachel Lovinger, Karen McGrane, and Kristina Halvorson (slides) collaborated to present three separate panels on the subject, ranging from why you should invest in a dedicated CS resource to how to implement it in your organization. The need for a Content Strategist became clear in these sessions, as they can offer clients predictability, reduce unnecessary whitespace and prioritize communication goals while reducing costs – words will always be cheaper than design comps, after all.

We’ve always made pretty bold proclamations in this industry that Content is King, but it really hasn’t been. Content is all too often considered as an afterthought after wireframes and design comps have been presented to and approved by the client. Relegated to boxes as placeholders and Lorem Ipsum, too many of us take a “do it later” approach with what is most important to the user. People aren’t visiting your site to look at colours and boxes, they’re there for a purpose, and the content should be at the core of any design.

Wireframes and design concepts are much more believable when populated with real content, both to the team creating them and the client reviewing them. Speaking from experience, the worst thing that can happen to me as an Information Architect is when I’m asked to design an experience without any content provided up front. It’s like building a house without having any clue how many people will be living there and decorating it without any regard for the resident’s taste; Ultimately, you’re going to end up with a pretty dry experience, a lot of filler and too much empty space.

Persuasive Design

Persuasive Design, like Content Strategy, isn’t a new concept, but is seeing increased focus by designers trying to motivate Web users down a path to take a desired action. It’s the use of tried, tested & true psychological techniques to take advantage of our innate subconscious wills and desires as humans. What it comes down to is taking advantage of concepts like sensory integration (providing a highly rich experience for many senses), social proof (when we’re influenced to follow the behaviour of others, like lining up in a queue), and scarcity principles (offering limited access to a beta or limited editions of a product).

There are many, many more biases and concepts that can be used to enhance Web design. In his panel on Persuasive Design (slides), Andy Budd calls them Cognitive Biases. Stephen Anderson called them Seductive Interactions, and handed out a sample set of cards he’s working on that he calls Mental Notes (see photo above) to help inject psychology cues into Web design.

Many of the examples Budd and Anderson used involved introducing concepts of gaming to give the site or service a sense of playfulness. As humans we inherently are drawn to play and challenges. By making tasks (even menial ones) seem more like a game, we’ve seen user uptake and productivity increase significantly. Take Google’s Image Labeler for example, which lets you play with a random partner online to assign matching words to an image. Google builds up its image search keyword descriptors, and it’s surprisingly fun and addictive to play.

Having started in to this industry by way of my love for games, I’m excited that to have started incorporating some more playful elements into projects here at Teehan+Lax that will benefit both our clients’ objectives and be fun for users. Look for more on that in a future blog post.

More to Come

Having sat in almost 20 sessions in about 4 full days, there’s a lot more to share from this year’s South by Southwest. Over the next week or so, I’ll be rounding up some of my favourite video highlights from the conference. Did you attend SXSW? What was your sense of what made waves of the conference, and how was it for you? Let me know in the comments.

Adam Schwabe More posts by Adam Schwabe