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SXSW Interactive 2007: Day One

    Matthew Magain

    As I mentioned last week, the SitePoint team has endured the 17 hours flying time (and a cruel seven-hour layover at LAX) to touch down in Austin, Texas for SXSW Interactive 2007.

    We’ve been busy soaking up the atmosphere of the biggest web geek conference in the world (note: statement based entirely on experience and observation, without any checking of facts) and our clever ploy to give away books for beers has so far proven remarkably successful. Let’s just say that a lot of books have been given away, and it’s still only the first day!

    Here are some highlights from a sampling of the panels that I attended today. I’ll only blog about panels that I really enjoyed or learned something in–reporting that a panel sucked is boring to read.

    • The Influence of Art in Design
      Hosted by the consummate gentleman Dan Rubin, this was one of those panels to get the creative side of the brain firing on all cylinders. While the panelists didn’t reveal any revolutionary techniques, what they did was inspire the artists and designers in the audience to think outside the box when searching for inspiration for a web site design. I know that when I’m stuck in a creative rut, I’m often guilty of dwelling on the fact that ideas aren’t coming to me, rather than consciously seeking that inspiration out.

      It was a very visual panel; some of the suggestions for inspiration included:

      • shapes in architecture
      • patterns in nature
      • different types of music
      • fine art from various eras
      • cartoons, caricature and line art

      Having museum technologist Glenda Sims present at first seemed like an odd addition, but throughout the panel her inclusion became more than validated as she talked about the interactive exhibitions she is involved in setting up. The possibilities for creating an effective user experience in an art installation are endless compared to the limits we work with on a computer screen, so having that fresh perspective forced everyone to re-think what our goals are when creating a user experience on the Web. It also underscored the fact that these sources of inspiration are useful for all creative people, regardless of whether you’re designing a web page or an art installation.
      The presentation slides, photos and other stuff relating to the panel are online.

    • Kathy Sierra: Opening Remarks
      If you’re not aware of Kathy Sierra’s blog Creating Passionate Users, then I recommend you begin following her writings, regardless of whether you are a graphic designer, hardcore techie or play some other role in the web game. Kathy’s posts are always meaty and lengthy, but they often contain the kind of head-slapping insight that makes one comment, “That’s so obvious, why haven’t I thought of it?”

      Kathy Sierra is a charismatic public speaker, and her keynote presentation did not disappoint. The very message that she promotes on her blog formed the essence of her talk: that our goal should be to help our users to rock. Her definition of when someone starts rocking is when they get your product and start doing amazing things with it. The problem, of course, is that until they get your product, they suck at using it. She illustrated the evolution with one of her famous graphs showing the path from “suck” to “rock” over time.

      Kathy’s message hit home for me, for both the web development projects I dabble in and the books I edit. We’re very proud of the books we publish, but there is of course always room for improvement to make an explanation clearer or a diagram less intimidating–it’s all about reducing the suck/rock threshold! If you’re interested in more details on this talk, Jeff Beckham live-blogged the talk on his personal site.
      The podcast from this session is now online.

    • High Class and Low Class Web Design
      This was a thought-provoking panel that asked the question “Is There A Design Class System?” Because each designer is different, the answers to some of the questions asked weren’t consistent, so it didn’t feel like a lot of progress was made on the issue of whether, like society, there is a class system in place in the world of design, which was a little frustrating. But a number of very interesting questions were asked, including:

      • Is it possible that there is no “good” and “bad” design, only “low class” and “high class” design? How do we measure “good”?
      • Do you design for yourself or for your users? If you design for your audience (as any self-respecting designer would loudly profess), how do you determine who they are and how their “class” comes into play?
      • Do you respect your audience? Are they your equals?
      • Is low-class design guided by measured statistics (such as click-throughs and usability metrics) and high-class design based on expertise and one visionary leader’s gut-feel (think Steve Jobs)?
      • Is your taste in design based on your upbringing and class background and what you are exposed to?
      • If your statistics suggest that the financial success of a web site would improve by “dumbing down” your design, should you do that, or instead strive to educate your audience?

      Personally I think that, regardless of the audience, there always needs to be a compromise between the in-your-face popular aesthetic that appeals to the masses (and offends the “elitists”) and the finely-crafted style that comes from targeting a more cultured or educated minority. It definitely got me thinking about how sitepoint.com is perceived and the factors that we should be considering when presenting an aesthetic that attracts visitors to our site.

    What has become glaringly obvious after the first day is that, while the panels at SXSWi are varied in terms of their educational value, the real worth that all attendees get out of attending this conference is the networking opportunities. Almost without exception, the attendees I’ve spoken to–guru panelists, ambitious entrepreneurs and regular freelance web developers alike–are all friendly, excited about what they do and eager for a chat.

    And so after the official panels had finished, the hard-working SitePoint team braved the infamous SXSW nightlife, putting in some solid hours frequenting the various social events that were occurring in parallel at multiple locations throughout Austin’s nightlife district.

    From small, crowded bars in the CBD to multi-level gatherings of 1500 people to open-air mingling in a pub in a shady neighbourhood out of town, Team SitePoint has been there–meeting attendees, giving away books and t-shirts and diligently consuming the necessary number of alcoholic drinks to sustain intelligent conversation.

    And we do it all for you, dear readers.