SXSW – First day roundup

    Ian Lloyd
    Ian Lloyd

    Another March comes around, and with it another South By Southwest (SXSW). Once again I find myself making the pilgrimage with other like-minded web geeks to the web conference that really sets the standards (no pun intended) for all others.

    This is my forth time attending the conference and as a measure of how highly I rate it I usually offer up this anecdote: two years ago I was taking a year-long sabbatical from work and during that time I was not earning – I was not working my way around the world, but had instead remortgaged the house to pay for the trip. Despite having limited funds, I still managed to find the money to take me from my holidaying in Australia, flying a somewhat long-winded route from Sydney via San Francisco and Denver to get to Austin, Texas. Yep, it really is a conference that justifies this kind of lunacy!

    As I write this, SXSW Interactive (there is also a film and music portion for the conference) has just begun. The first day’s sessions are over and everyone is getting ready for the opening party. Actually, this is largely what SXSW is about, much more so than other conferences that I’ve attended – it is a very social event, and what happens in the evenings is arguably as important, if not more so, than the sessions during the daytime. If there were ever a place to network and to put faces to the names of all those virtual people whose blogs, websites, businesses and services we use and visit so much, this is it.

    SXSW started with something of a bang for me. Literally. I was lucky enough to join Molly Holzschlag and Andy Clarke (fellow WaSP members) with a bunch of friends who knew some ‘gun people’ in this most liberal of gun-toting states. And so it was that we ended up at a shooting range, having the most memorable pre-conference fun yet! The quote of the day came from Molly who said of Andy “He went in a Wendy and came out a man!”. Andy had never shot anything before, but turned out to be something of a sharp-shooter, showing a level of precision with a gun that matches his precision with all things CSS and design. Beware anyone who dare criticise Malarkey’s work now!

    So, what of the sessions themselves? The first session session that I attended (from a possible choice of 5) was entitled ‘Traditional Design and New Technology’ and featured Toni Greaves from (Razorfish), Mark Boulton (BBC), Khoi Vinh (New York Times), Liz Danzico (AIGA) and Jason Santa Maria. The sessions revolved around the expectations that people have of traditional design, be that print or product design, and online. Mark Boulton expressed his dismay about how people can come out from college with design degrees and still not have the basic undertanding of concepts so important to design such as how to set leading on type. He also stated that he cannot remember the last time that he got the same kind of emotional response from a website that he might have over, say, a car or some other nicely designed product (“That’s why we all buy Macs, right?” to which Khoi replied “Not all of us!”). This turned out to be something of a talking point with Toni disagreeing quite strongly – she could think of reams of sites that gave her exactly that kind of emotional response and recalled the very first site that did it as far back as 1997 (in internet terms, an absolute age ago). Who was right – Mark or Toni? What this suggested, and what the presenters then discussed, was that people have very different expectations, and also have different expectations between what they see online and the real world counterparts. The age old point about eBay’s general ugliness seemingly being at odds with its huge success came up, with Mark suggesting that a little extra design input wouldn’t go amiss, while Toni balked at the prospect of the very simple-looking Craigslist getting a pimped look (my words, not hers!). Despite being the first session, the audience were not afraid to raise contentious issues (the previous evening’s socialising evidently had not killed off all the brain cells).

    The next session I attended was ‘How to be a Web Design Superhero’ with Andy Budd and Andy Clarke. This looked like it would be a bit of fun and the dynamic duo didn’t disappoint. The stage setting was very rock-and-roll (“Are Pink Floyd playing?” I heard someone comment on the way in), and the presentation began with a very tongue-in-cheek movie title-style opening sequence. The two Andys made connections between superheros and web designers, as unlikely a combination as that may be, and how striving for greatness like your favourite superhero can turn you into a web design superhero. It sounds like a wacky idea, but it was a fun way of looking at a fairly generic topic and a nice easing everyone in to the rest of the conference’s sessions. After lunch, it would all get a bit more complex.

    The first afternoon session I attended (post-traditional Texan BBQ) was Jeremy Keith and Aaron Gustafson‘s ‘How to Bluff Your Way in Dom Scripting‘. I had previously attended a Clear:left 1-day AJAX course in London which included a lot of the unobtrusive JavaScript and DOM scripting as part of the preamble, and in this SXSW session Jeremy distilled the important points from that day into a 1-hour session that proved very useful as a primer for what DOM scripting is and what it should and should not be used for. With Aaron presenting a selection of practical uses of DOM scripting (including a method for styling selection lists), they showed that beginning DOM scripting need not be rocket science. However, the audience questions concerning performance issues of using DOM scripting methods on some web pages revealed that using the DOM to update larger pages in certain ways may not always be the best method (I can attest to this, having had IE freeze on me for almost 10 seconds after page load on a particularly busy table manipulation script that I ultimately ended up ditching). As Jeremy said, using the proprietary innerHTML instead of DOM scripting is like using a sledge hammer rather than a finely crafted scalpel. As I see it, using a scalpel to make 10,000 precision cuts is not always the best method.

    The final presentation that I attended on the day was entitled ‘How to Create Passionate Users‘. I didn’t know who the presenter would be – I had been sold on the title alone. Kathy Sierra (biography here) wowed the audience with one of the most engaging presentations that I can recall seeing at SXSW over the last few years yet once I came out of the session I had difficulty describing exactly what she had done to wow us, mainly because I couldn’t possibly do it justice! In essence, she was explaining how the human brain is essentially a legacy from days when we lived in a cave and while we might want to learn stuff, the brain was basically still stuck in that era. As an example: you’re cramming for a final exam, you’re reading up on a topic that is not exactly exciting and no matter how many times you re-read a page, it’s not going in because the brain is basically saying “this stuff is not important or life threatening”, but the moment a hottie walks past (her words!), the brain starts to pay attention. With that in mind, she ran through various techniques that you might be able to use to trick the brain to get enthusiastic about things and thus get your users to be passionate about what you do (or rather what it is that you enable the user to do). The slides were excellent and laugh-out-loud funny and, for a change, the ‘interactive’ session was truly that, as she got the whole audience to break off into smaller discussion groups three separate times. All I can say is that the podcast for this will be well worth checking out (when it’s available), even if you don’t get all the visual elements that made it such fun.

    An excellent start to the first day’s proceedings. Now all there’s left to do is pick up on the socialising for the evening. More reports tomorrow, folks.