I started writing up an entire trip report detailing how every minute of my trip to Austin this year went. But I realized that it didn’t really get to the heart of what I wanted to say. Here’s what I wrote to my team at work to summarize. Khoi Vinh has some great commentary about the mechanism of the conference and I agree completely, so I won’t parrot him here.
South by Southwest Interactive is always a difficult creature to define. On the one hand, it’s a design conference with many rockstar attendees and on the other hand, it’s a development conference with strong ties to the technology and the social concerns that serve as an undercurrent to every interface alive on the web at any given time. SXSW serves as a sort of social barometer, a finger on the pulse of what is happening, and it changes year to year.
The first time I attended was in 2005 and the concept of the day was social networking, something that in 2007 WSOD’s clients are just now beginning to ask about. “How can we get on this whole social networking boat?” they seem to be asking us, and that boat was first launched in Austin, TX in 2005.
Social networking is just an example of the trends and themes that SXSW has and will continue to explore, but it stands out as a pointer to what SXSW is and tries every year to be: a place for the best and brightest of the web to gather in a relaxed atmosphere and put their heads together to figure out where the internet is headed, on a visual level, a technological level as well as a less tangible conceptual level.
What this means of course is that specific takeaways are hard to define; bullet points are difficult to put together in any meaningful way that will accurately represent the feeling one has on the flight home after 5 days of being inundated with new and interesting ideas.
That’s what SXSW provides you: a subtle shift in how you see the mechanism of the web, an excitement in what is possible, an awe for what happens when tags and images and code work together to create something more.
To best describe SXSW 2007 to someone who’s never attended, though, I’d have to settle on the following lessons:
+ Listen to your users! They’re important and they know what they want better than you do. Most of the time. There was much discussion around the documentation phenomenon and whether the abundance of proof provided to a client prior to any design taking place was an accurate way of designing for a medium that is fluid. Does more up-front documentation proving your idea is worth you client’s dollars make us less likely to try different solutions? Do we become so highly sensitive to critique when we’ve worked up personas and wireframes and use cases detailing why our idea is the greatest idea ever that we refuse to admit that it might be completely wrong? When does a designer’s “intuition” come into play?
+ The strongest web firms in the country are made up of people who were referred to as “generalists,” designers who understand and can write code, and developers who understand the kind of detail a designer puts into their work and who can respect and accurately represent this in their code. No one is advocating that everyone be able to absolutely everything, but having the gap overlap is crucial to success in the marketplace of web design/development. This dovetails nicely with point #1 above, and reinforced to me that WSOD is doing things the best way possible by removing the step of a specialized IA who gives wireframes to a designer who simply styles them. We had many conversations detailing exactly what level our designers delved into the data and cared about the data structure and goals before even starting design. This raised some eyebrows and impressed people that the designers here care as much about the data and information architecture as we do about the colors, type, layout, etc.
+ Design is life. There is no 9-5 if you’re a designer and keeping a strong stable of inspiration from which to draw is key to keeping the well of creativity overflowing. There was a distinct line drawn between being inspired by something and being influenced by something.. The former being the higher road to take as the latter ends up in copying superficial stylistic embellishments while missing the deeper meaning of the original influential piece. The idea of really doing your research before beginning a design project can greatly enhance the visual appeal of it because you’ve understood the structure and the history of everything going into what you’re producing, allowing you to follow the trail to the right decisions that are deeply linked to what you’re designing, not just choosing a typeface or graphical style because “it looks nice” or “it’s what’s hot right now.”
+ Something to keep in mind for the decades ahead: today’s teens growing up on the internet have a much more open mind to what constitutes privacy. There’s a generation who see the idea of blogging your everyday life as immensely anti-personal and as having a complete lack of self-respect or control. But the reality is that the generation younger than the current blog generation are blogging and networking socially in a much more open manner; everything about them is displayed on myspace for the world to see. Very little is kept behind a locked – or even closed – door. How will this influence web-based investing tools in 10, 15, 20 years down the road? What will this generation of investors require of us, and will they request it from us at younger ages? And at quicker intervals?
+ Agile development is really only possible if every member of the team is committed to it, and if the entire team is located in the same space. We won’t be able to move teams to any agile process until the project manager, account manager, SQL developer, etc. all reside in the same small space. This will be a challenge for WSOD.
+ When building a team, there needs to be a part of this team segmented off from doing client work whose sole goal is to focus on the future of the team and the future of the company, otherwise no one will have the time to do so, and the vision will falter, resulting in a higher turnover. Perhaps use more junior-level team members to take the quick-hit projects that require a high concentration of short-term focus to accomplish something, while leaving the senior people to focus on the bigger picture. When attempting to keep a team inspired, the team leaders must be inspiring. This sounds so basic as to not even be worth writing down but it has hidden meaning and is difficult to pull off. “Whining ruins the brand of your team.”