Monday, March 17, 2014

On SXSW : 2014 Retrospective

This year's SXSW Interactive was a unique opportunity.  It was an opportunity to experience Neil deGrasse Tyson's enthusiasm for science, to see and listen to Edward Snowden's first public interview, see Adam Savage be quirky and engaging, and as always, open my brain up and let people dump things in.

These retrospectives help me filter out all that was poured in and find some of the key nuggets within the themes.  Each person's SXSW is a little different:  an amalgamation of the talks they listened to and who they met while experiencing the night life.  Still, given that, there are themes that resonate through-out the experience that you'll hear talked about whether on the shuttle ride or over the tables at the food truck court.

These themes fell into these categories:
  • Privacy of your data.
  • Where are the Apps and Responsive design.
  • Wearable tech.
  • Continuing Simplicity.
  • Experiment. Be scientists.
As usual, I will write some deeper dives on each of these following this summary!

There is a renewed focus on privacy, specifically privacy of your data.  With figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden making live virtual appearances, it would be hard to say that privacy wasn't a major theme for SXSWi 2014.  Both of these names tend to polarize individuals whether you believe them traitors, patriots, or something in between.  I won't comment on that, but what I will comment on the effect of Wikileaks and the NSA files have had:  technologists are pissed and are actively working to build better security solutions.  Perhaps one of the more salient points made by Snowden was that it wasn't difficult for the NSA to start vacuuming up data from across the web.  That was easy.  The hard part is processing the data in a meaningful way.  That there was little challenge in seizing the data means that many of us have failed in our roles as stewards of user data.

Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP
This isn't just a message about governments, but about corporations, too.  What are you doing to better secure your user's data?  Do you delete it when you're done?  Do you only ask for and keep the absolute minimum that you need?  Is it encrypted?  These should be active questions for all of us, whether we're writing the code, managing the data, or designing the interfaces.

An additional point driven home:  while a political change is necessary, more so is a change in the technology and its standards.  The drivers of that change to secure our data will be thought-leaders in technology.  Whatever the politicians do, we need to push the boundaries on security.

Not just because the NSA may be spying, but because anyone may be spying.

Apps or Responsive?
Noticeably absent were big pushes for Apps.  While people talked about building Apps in a greater context, the "Oh my God, you must have apps!" reaction has passed.  In its stead is a cautionary tale about company after company that has built an App for one reason or another and not gained any tangible benefits.  And don't forget the hassle that App approval presents.

Many companies have built whole teams centered just on App development, sunk gobs of cash, and haven't realized a windfall of money or users.  People are still trying to figure out what the rules are around what to build and what not to build as Apps.  This is leading towards a trend of building flexible, scalable sites using Responsive methodologies as a stop-gap.  Even then there is sub-context since most Responsive techniques are fairly immature and certainly not optimized for speed.  While most technologists today will tell you to build Responsive, there are arguments to be made for device-optimized sites.

The biggest concern around device-optimized sites is the scalabilty of maintenance.  With the growing number of wearable devices coming, can you reasonably build for each device you want to be available on?

Which leads me to...

Wearables, Wearables Everywhere
Shocker, right?  Not likely.  With numerous conversations about wearable tech, there is definitely an air of excitement around the potential.  But the experience with Apps has left many people cautious.  A common thought in conversations around SXSW was that wearables will be awesome once dynamite Apps are built for them.  But who is building the Apps?  The software community is cautious while the hardware community is bullish.

The end result, I'm predicting, is not going to be good for many of the wearable manufacturers.  The ultra-specific devices have to be incredibly good at their one task to remain relative.  How many of you, or people you know, jumped onto the FitBit band wagon only to ditch it after a few months?  This type of use and discard mentality is a carry-over from the Apps phenomenon.  Apps that did their job very well stick around on your device.  Those that don't or lose novelty collect dust until they're eventually deleted.

Therefore most of the software people are adopting a wait-and-see approach.  Don't get crazy trying to be present everywhere.  Be selective and husband your resources.

Simplicity, assisted by Body Cognition
Last year I was rather impressed with the combination of AI advancement with the No UI movement.  The crossroads of those axis of advance is a nice sweet spot where good software delivers relevant services without requiring much interaction from you.

A great addition to this No UI concept is the integration of Body Cognition principles into the design of software.  Body Cognition is the science investigating how physical inputs to your body influence your perceptions at a subconscious level.  I'll do a whole lot better explaining this by using some examples.

Being in a room of strangers with a warm cup of coffee is more likely to make you more comfortable than if you had ice water.  A heavy clipboard and lab coat is more likely to make you take a science experiment more seriously than if you just had a notepad and board shorts.

When it comes to software, this is more about pleasing visual cues or cues that evoke other physical senses.  Clean, fresh lines and colors are more likely to be found attractive than a messy, disheveled presentation the same way a fresh apple is more appealing than an old one.

Applying this line of thought is a challenge for me.  With sites that are data-heavy, finding a "clean" presentation that is also informative is not always straight-forward.  Applying some of these ideas can help make the optimal path a bit more obvious.

Science means experiment, experiment, experiment!
If there is anything Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage represent, it's the scientific method.  Their keynotes spent a bunch of time talking about this and stressing why it is important for our future.  Adam took it another step forward emphasizing that Art is Science and Science is Art, that one cannot live without the other.

A few of you may roll your eyes at this, but he has a subtle point.  The scientist cannot create a hypothesis without being creative enough to think of one.  The artist cannot find what is most pleasing to them without trying different techniques.  In my business we exercise our creativity every day - whether designing a new interface, data model, architecture, or attempting to find a solution to a bug, it's creative thought that drives.  It's the scientific method that takes a creative idea and molds it into a design pattern.  It's the computer science that optimizes its performance.

This means you have to experiment and allow your teams to experiment.  Which also means you may have to budget some padding for that experimentation time.  Scott Cook of Inuit fame encourages this behavior in his development teams.  With a business infrastructure designed around percolating the best ideas into experiments, they spend significant amounts of money/time testing ideas understanding that the end result will be a better product.  The success of TurboTax and QuickBooks speak for themselves about the potential of this type of business management.

At the end of the day, as Neil stated, we can only be a competitive nation in the 21st century if we continue to teach science and be scientific minded.

Other Details
There were several other interesting talks I sat in.  One had the first 3D-modeled live fly-through of an active human brain.  There were a few API conversations that had some tid-bits to bring back.  I'll try to wrap these up into a "miscellaneous" post.
A GIF of the 3D active brain-fly-through.
All in all - another fun & challenging SXSWi, despite the ridiculous traffic!

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