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A few thoughts about what to remember from this year's SXSW Interactive.

A few thoughts about what to remember from this year’s SXSW Interactive.

Attending SXSW Interactive is a little like being on safari.

The day begins with anticipation, involves endless strategizing around where to be and what ballrooms offer the maximum return, and ends with a re-cap of which “big game” was spotted, what life-changing experiences were narrowly missed and what was photo (or Tweet, or Instagram, or Meerkat) worthy.

The highs and lows are all there—some great speakers sharing the new and unexpected, some sessions so popular they require sacrificing your morning to stand in line and a few panels falling so short that they inspire rage over the Panel Picking process. Throw in Grumpy cat, book-reading squirrels, Mophie dogs and a robot petting zoo and you’re better off preparing for a safari than for an ordinary conference.

This year’s SXSW Interactive spanned over 100 themes from Fashion to Food to Gaming and Health, taking place over several miles of venues in Austin, TX. The Cooney Center hosted a panel, Playing to Learn: Lessons from Game Design Gurus, and tracked these five trends across our five days at the festival:

Diversity as marketing buzzword

Facebook and Ipsos MediaCT shared findings from their latest survey on the connection between culture and social.  The packed room let out an audible sigh when presenters shifted from survey data (i.e., 48 percent of U.S. Hispanics’ Facebook friends are family members, compared with 36 percent for the overall population) to show video “case studies” pitching more advertisers to flock to Facebook.

More substantive panels related to issues of cultural diversity were common at SXSW, but many reflected the interest of marketers to reach an increasingly diverse digital audience.

Storytelling through data

At the intersection of “big data” and a growing news presence, dozens of SXSW sessions focused on using data to tell compelling stories.  Steve Duenes, the Associate Editor responsible for interactive storytelling at the New York Times, compared traditional bar charts to parking garages (all function with no elegance) and emphasized the “craftsmanship” involved in turning a great idea into a memorable story.

He also described the huge cultural change required to support a multidisciplinary approach for the type of reporting found in The Upshot and many in the audience asked him what types of digital pros they could hire to achieve similar results.

New platforms, new business models

Whether panelists were talking about well-known but evolving platforms like games for kids, or unchartered territory like virtual reality, the struggle for funding is universal.

Game design veteran and Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning offered a master class in designing new IP for new technologies, emphasizing the need to “fail faster, sooner, and cheaper,” and warning that if you “cook it too long, audience tastes will change.”

Filament’s Lee Wilson, Whyville’s James Bower and their fellow panelists debated the limits that should be applied to monetizing kids’ games and discussed the effects of “polluting the market” with games that are designed solely for advertising revenue.

Bright future for health, cars and space travel

For years, SXSW has been known as the platform for new budding companies to launch products from check-in applications to cat meme generators. It’s also been the venue where speakers like Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google[x] talk about the future, encouraging audience members to think ahead and think big.

This year, health and science were fairly big themes with Paola Antonelli spending most of her talk “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future” pointing out various pieces of work with strong ties to the space, while Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Gurley discussed the near future of autonomous cars. NASA had a strong presence with a number of sessions featuring astronauts, researchers, and scientists all discussing the future and current state of space exploration.

Neuroscience researchers Daphne Bavelier and Adam Gazzaley shared provocative data about how games are disrupting health and education, by speeding up the pace of learning and slowing down  age-related deficits. According to SXSW, the future is fairly bright. Who actually takes advantage of it and makes the next big splash is up to us.

Research critical to user-centered design

Design has always been a consistent and strong part of SXSW — it comes up in a variety ways including how to best design the user experience, using big data for design, designing for a certain population (usually for the most recent generation) and design thinking.

One common theme for this year was how to use observation and research methods to ground and inform design.

Genevieve Bell, Intel’s Corporate Sensing & Insights lead, along with Mimi Ito, Professor at the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine, described their own experiences with using research and how to convince others around them of its importance. Given both have an anthropology background, it wasn’t a surprise that Bell and Ito emphasized that to best design for users, look at behaviors in context.

Essentially, we need to spend time with users while they live their lives and ground ourselves in everyday experience since what users do is very different from what they say they do. Ito pointed out that if you study kids (or other users) for a while, the stuff they use may change but the behaviors are consistent so designers should keep track of those consistent behavior markers.

And our Cooney Center session, Playing to Learn: Lessons from Game Design Gurus, featured an all-star panel sharing lessons learned from using research to inform playful learning experiences.  Cecilia Weckstrom, senior director of LEGO.com summed up a sentiment shared at much of SXSW:  “Just at the time you think you have it just right, that’s the time to start questioning it all over again.” Until the next Austin safari, many SXSW participants will be looking for the answers.

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