Wednesday, March 16, 2011

takeaways from sxsw--more learning, less swag

I was momentarily disappointed this year at check-in to discover that SXSW "big bags" bulged with far fewer giveaways. (I arrived in the evening, hungry, having spent the day in sustenance-free air.) Was this year's dearth of swag due to a green effort, as organizers contend, or to the fact that recession-hit companies didn't want to pony up for thousands more note pads, snacks, energy drinks, pens and CDs? But who could blame them? There were 6000 more digital attendees this year than last, a total of 17,000 swarming the Convention Center for what felt like just as many panels. The bound roster was 330 pages and almost 3 lbs. (Callout to massage therapists attending return of digital warriors.)

Sheer volume of offerings makes it impossible to do a proper summation, but to my mind, Oliver Burkeman gets it right in The Guardian by observing that what the conference was ultimately about was the fading delineation between “real life” and “online life.” Almost all of our life (for better or worse) is now being lived in connection with crowds of others in various timezones. New ways to blur the line between the physical and virtual worlds excited a lot of SXSW chatter.

A hit at parties was Instaprint, the new location-based photo booth. (Pictured, at Club DeVille) It’s a lunch-box sized printer you can hang on the wall to turn online Instagram photos to tiny actual prints. Toting two to Austin made the Breakfast agency A-listers. Another much-talked about evernet topic was mobile tagging which makes anything clickable, according to Microsoft Tag’s director of marketing. TAGs are a color, updatable version of QR codes which, happily, were not part of badges this year, eliminating the need to awkwardly point your cellphone at someone’s chest.

What else did I learn at SXSW aside from the fact that the W is Austin's new "it" hotel? Here are notes from a couple of panels. Unfortunately, I missed the one that promoted itself with a hilarious video I just saw this morning.

This session was about UI designing for boomers. Not unemployment insurance. User interface. Which means how user-friendly a digital experience is. The goal of UI designers is to make interacting with a machine as simple and easy as possible. Obviously we need more of them on the planet.

Boomers comprise a third of the population online, reported the gratifyingly age-agnostic 30-something presenter, John McCree, pleasantly surprising me and, no doubt, the handful of other boomers in the audience of hundreds. The trick to UI designing for boomers, he said, includes added emphasis on ease of use: embedding terminology that’s consistent (don’t use “exit” on one screen and “quit” on another.) Don’t dumb down the experience, just make it simpler to navigate. And (to this boomer, most relevant) don’t keep adding features to make a device better. Adding unwanted features, just because you can, increases only confusion and irritation in those who grew up with 2-knob televisions and non-programmable rotaries.

Seeing Barry Diller on the schedule made me feel better. I knew I wouldn’t be the oldest one in the room. Conveniently, his talk was located in a Ballroom next to the Ogilvynotes table, where I was able to snag illustrated notes on panels I’d missed the day before.

At first, I wondered why I was sitting there instead of at one of the 15 sessions on simultaneous offer. “The internet is a miracle,” Diller began, waxing on about its impact on culture, as if it was 1999. But when CNN anchor Poppy Harlow nudged him into meatier territory, he was off to the races. (You don't get to be one of the world's biggest Media Magillas without learning to pivot.) He quickly reacquired attention of the audience by confiding that his wife, Diane von Furstenburg, plays Angry Birds. Here's a few of his most tweeted bon mots:

on owning a business
If you don’t have a business, you’re just out there on the town square, crying out to the crowd.

on pay per use
Premium content costs money to produce. If the person creating content receives no benefit from it beyond knowing it’s being shared, the model has no commercial prospect.

on policitians
Instead of going out and making speeches, politicians should stay home and make better laws.

is content king?
Well, if you do content, you want it to be king.

advice to startups
Get enough money to get it started. Give away as little as possible. Keep your head down. Don’t listen/talk to anybody except your audience. If it works, great. If not, you get to do it all over again.

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