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SXSW report: The South By Experience

South By South West. (SXSW)

You think it’s big? It’s enormous. You expect the program of sessions to be intensive? It’s mind-blowing. You hope you will learn something new? It changes your view on your profession and the world.

Austin Convention Center.

Austin Convention Center.

SXSW is the holy grail of conferences for a UX Designer like myself. With the strong Interactive Track, jam-packed with interesting sessions by fascinating people, my expectations were sky high before I even got on the plane to get to Austin. I was eager to learn from the crème de la crème of digital professionals.

 

What I didn’t expect was for my professional world to be shaken in all directions during the weeklong festival.

 

In the last week, I have heard perspectives on the digital industry that have inspired me to think differently about my own UX work. I have seen promising technologies from around the world, that have opened my eyes to immensely impactful ways the digital industry can change the world for the better. I have also heard predictions of the future, which have scared the crap out of me – luckily, this has led me to seeing even more opportunities to change the world in a better direction.

Panel discussion about 5 factors influencing UX design in the future: Technology, simplicity, mobility, connectivity and ubiquity.

Panel discussion about 5 factors influencing UX design in the future: Technology, simplicity, mobility, connectivity and ubiquity.

SXSW is based in the hip and hipster city of Austin, Texas. It’s a festival of film, music, food and technology, attended by around 40000 people. The heart of it is Austin Convention Center where the keynotes, featured talks and the trade show take place. The nearby hotels and other venues host many of the interactive talks, whilst the film screenings and music events are scattered throughout Austin. With this amount of attendees and thousands of volunteers and organisers, the entire city of Austin is transformed into the SXSW festival for the entire week. Restaurants and coffee shops are staffed to feed the masses, shops are dressed up in SXSW merchandise, promoting the festival as well as its home city. Public transport schedules are tailored to transport festival goers to the city and around. My favourite touch: the displays on the front of buses feature SXSW graphics.

6th street with live music and roof top parties.

6th street with live music and roof top parties.

The interactive track of the festival fills up 5 days, from Friday to Tuesday, with a few talks taking place on Wednesday and Thursday too. The program consists of hundreds of speakers every day. This amount of content means that there is something cool to hear pretty much every day from 9.30 to 18. After a full day, you can believe that your brain will be completely fried with thoughts, impressions, input, knowledge, insights, surprises… This amount of content also means that it’s utterly impossible to attend every session you would want to. After I highlighted all my favourites from the program, I sometimes had 4 or 5 sessions I wanted to hear at the same time. The necessary selection process is painful, and it’s impossible to avoid that annoying Fear Of Missing Out.

Although the number of interesting talks is overwhelming to say the least, the value of SXSW lies mainly in this vast amount of content. With the many sessions to choose from, careful scheduling and a lot of running from talk to talk (comfortable sneakers are essential!), it’s possible to hear several perspectives on the same issues. Fx. I have heard people explain both the doomsday- and opportunity-views on AI of the future. And I have heard many – very different – predictions of what is next; some bet on VR, some put their money on wearables, whilst others swear to machine learning.

Intel demonstrate how artificial intelligence can be used to analyse and improve sports performance.

Intel demonstrate how artificial intelligence can be used to analyse and improve sports performance.

Attending a conference of this magnitude makes it extremely apparent that technology development is happening in many different directions at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be a coordination of efforts between organisations, companies and governments who participate in the exponentially speedy race to inventing ‘the next, new thing’. And so, as I finish writing this piece whilst waiting for my plane out of Austin, I am grateful that this week has given me an overview of what is bubbling in the various parts of the world, so that I and Jayway can continue helping our clients navigate the landscape of digital possibilities.

Natalia Barbour