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Lessons from SXSW

Bill Casey CEO & Partner
#Events, #News & Culture
Published on April 11, 2013

SXSW - the biggest, weirdest, and most eye opening interactive conference going. A few thoughts and lessons learned from our latest venture south to Austin, TX.

This year was our second trip to Austin, TX to participate in the annual gathering of all things interactive at the South By Southwest Interactive Conference. Much like last year, the same adjectives can be used to describe the experience: overwhelming, inspiring, enlightening, partying (ok, the last one is a verb but its still an essential part of this event). Grumpy Cat even made an appearance, but the line stretching around the block to look at a cat wasn't all that interesting for me. Even more so than last year however was a hugely diverse set of topics and ideas that were covered. Trying to sum up any sort of overall theme or lesson for this event is utterly impossible since it's going to be different for everyone purely based on personal experience. But I will attempt to pass along a few thoughts and ideas that were part of my experience which relate to things we're doing at Diagram and how it might influence us in the coming years.

Space: The Final Frontier

Recent years at SXSW have focused largely on launching the next great app or discovering new and unique ways to leverage social media. This year seemed to be more about "what's coming" vs. "what's new" and wasn't restricted to purely web-based technology or design themes. Space travel had a larger than expected presence including a keynote from Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, talking about the next great leap in privately funded space travel and a fascinating panel presentation about the social and technological implications of the 100 Year Starship Project (which included LeVar Burton, or Geordi LaForge for any fellow Star Trek TNG fans). While there were no direct web design or development parallels in these presentations, they both pointed to fact that technology, and more specifically technological evolution, is dramatically changing the way we live. As has been the case for the past 50+ years, human spaceflight has been a huge catalyst for technological advances. As we take the next steps in our space-based adventures, a multitude of new technologies will need to be developed that will undoubtedly have a major impact on our daily lives and change the way we interact with technology. This will include narrowing the gap between the physical world and the virtual world.

Creating a Screenless World

Bringing things a little closer to home were two presentations speaking directly about the evolution in computer interfaces, which as web designers we should be keenly interested in. The first of these was "Beyond Mobile: Where No Geek Has Gone Before" presented by Josh Clark. The main point here was that we are moving toward a "screenless" world where we engage with our surroundings with built-in sensors and augmented reality, not with our faces stuck in a smart phone or computer screen. We're seeing the emergence of physical gesture and speech replacing (or supplementing) traditional screen interfaces, making this technology interface a much more natural experience.

Furthering this theme was a presentation by Golden Krishna called "The Best Interface is No Interface" which described the effort to change screen-based thinking when considering interface design. For years, we've been wrapped up with how to best adapt to an ever-changing screen "standard". Ten years ago, as monitor resolutions and screen sizes increased, the question of web page width (in pixels) was a primary concern - do we design for 640, 800, or 1024 pixel width displays. Today we're continually working to adapt to a mobile world where there no longer is a "standard" size and trying to figure out the best ways to display content on a wide variety of devices and screen sizes. In essence screens have been and continue to be the focal point when designing user interfaces and we, as designers, are constantly having to adjust to keep up.

Additionally, we're seeing screen-based solutions created in search of a problem...How much value is gained by having screen built in to your refrigerator allowing you to check your email? We're in love with the digital interface and have surrounded ourselves with screens. The presentation turned this issue on its head by calling for a new way of thinking when designing user interfaces… The need for access to information when and where we need it shouldn't be solved with more screens and forcing designers to find a way to support more screens. In other words, we should not continue to serve the computer, the computer should serve us in whatever context fits our environment.

A Great Leap Forward

Of course, there isn't an overnight solution to this problem, but we are seeing movement toward changing how we interact with computers. The video game industry had the most impact in this area with the introduction of motion-based control, allowing gamers to use their bodies to control the game action in lifelike simulations rather than simply pressing buttons. The Leap Motion Controller is the first commercially available device that lets you control your computer purely through hand gestures, just like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report". The Google Glass is another device that is looking to change the way we access information by adopting voice control and augmented visual reality. True, we've been hearing about the demise of the mouse and keyboard as interface controllers for years, but it seems like technology is finally catching up with the concept.

So what does this all mean for Diagram and the future of web design? It means we need to start thinking beyond what we already know and are comfortable with. Responsive Web Design solves the problem of adapting page designs to fit a variety of screen sizes and considering touch interaction over mouse interaction. But what happens when touch interaction is applied not just to mobile devices but to large screen displays (Windows 8)? Or how will gesture interaction affect how we design web interfaces? Furthermore, how do we structure content to be available in any of these contexts? These are big questions, but thinking about them now will help us be at the forefront of this ever-evolving web world.