Rocketeers in Orbit: Reflections on SXSW Interactive

Several Rocketeers traveled to Austin for SXSW Interactive this year.  Here is what they had to say about their experience: 

Bottle Rocket Art Director, Chris Thrash

So I went to SXSW with literally just the clothes on my back and an idea that it would be fun, tiring and an adventure. I was not disappointed.  I learned and saw all kinds of speakers, panels and informative sessions that related to the work we do here. Concepts like: Mobile Moments, Ambient Consumption, Device vs Format, Media is the message, Context of Consumption, Wearables and even INGESTibles were discussed and I could try to write about any of these topics with the small amount of knowledge I was able to retain from these meetings. But with all the wonderment these topics have, the key takeaways that really stood out the most for me were:

Making stuff is hard.

Whether it’s our own personal projects or the work we do here at Bottle Rocket it goes with real-life experience that anything worthwhile will require some challenging moments, physically and or emotionally. And if the challenges don’t break your confidence the economic strains will definitely make you question what you’re doing and why. I met a guy who made a battery-powered skateboard that can climb the hills of San Francisco and be carried on a bus and he had been working on that for over 2 years. All you have to do is think about your last home project and how you almost certainly spent more money and time getting that “darn thing” to work or hang or whatever the heck it does. But once it was done, the feeling you got made it all worth it because you knew what you did had meaning and purpose in your life experience. And the work we do here is the same thing for our end-users’ experience.

Making a conference about making stuff is hard.

So you made some cool stuff and you want to share at SXSW? AWESOME! Now get in line and have your credit card ready. Yes showing off your knowledge or creation is a pricey, long and tough thing too. I saw countless booths being assembled the entire time with people working around the clock to get t-shirts, pamphlets and giveaways ready to go. People running around with headsets freaking out to make sure that every last chair was used, that people’s microphones were working, that the video camera was rolling, that the signage had been hung, that the booze was flowing (maybe the most important thing of all). The effort and expense that goes into the booths and sessions just to hype stuff is essentially a sped up, more frantic version of the very same process we all go through as makers in the first place, regardless of our work.  And, we care about that work right? So we spend the effort, the care and the money to give our work the stage that it deserves.

Attending a conference about Making stuff is hard.

So people made some stuff, then a giant hyped-out conference was created for the stuff. So I just have to show up with an appetite for knowledge and a thirst for alcohol and I’m good right? Wrong.

All this time and effort making stuff and making stuff to hype stuff was a lot of work and if you want to soak up every moment you better be ready to work hard too. You need to be organized, understand where you’re going, what you want to see and be prepared for things to go against the plan you just made. Sure there’s those moments where you’ll be partying with gnomes at an open bar all night, but there will also be that mega rainstorm while walking across town to find out the session you’re going to was cancelled. You’ll get up at 6:45am to catch a ride through downtown traffic then run to a session. Lunch will be whatever comes available to you whether its complimentary sliders from a booth luncheon or the granola bar you remembered was in your backpack. Battery Life will be coveted and clean bathrooms will be a luxury, and then after consuming as much knowledge as you can cram in a 12-hour day you’ll hit the streets to find more knowledge and hopefully some free food and drinks topped off with a Snoop Dogg concert for your efforts. And then after a long, long day you’ll hit your bed like a rock knowing that you may only get 4 – 5 hours of sleep for another fun-filled exciting day doing the same thing. 

Bottle Rocket Art Director, Phillip Walker

One of my favorite sessions from SXSW was Ben Huh from Cheezburger titled “The Form factor is the Message”.

Here are some notes and quotes that stood out to me:

”You are, in many ways, being influenced by the device that you are using to communicate, a device is not tied to a format.”

“The medium in which we create content affects the message of that content.”

The average person spends between 80 and 100 hours a week being connected to some sort of device consuming content. And it will continue to increase. How will content change? We won’t be sleeping less, we’ll just spend more time consuming media on primary, secondary and maybe tertiary screens, which means we’re paying less attention to each piece of content we’re consuming.

“As time goes by, diversity of form factors is growing, time spent with each is shrinking.”

“The best device for whatever you’re doing is the one closest to you.”

Devices : Formats : Moments

Background – Explosion of devices = Competition for attention

Challenges – Using new formats to reach consumers with thinning attention spans.

Answers – The attention pie isn’t shrinking. Embrace constraints, leverage moments

“Apple’s 1984 ad works because it’s a Super Bowl ad. It doesn’t work on your phone. It was created to be a shared moment.”

“I bought a record player because I’m a hipster. And I put on a record, and started it going. And I walked away, started doing something else, and then the music stopped. The record was over, and it just stopped, and I didn’t know what to do. With that format, you need to be there, listening: It’s like all or nothing. It turns out, musicians don’t make music so you can walk down the street and check your email. Like, when Pink Floyd made The Wall? They actually wanted you to listen to the fucking album.”

“What we create in terms of native formats matters a lot because it drives engagement and traffic. The quest to figuring out how consumers prefer to consume is chief to remaining ahead of the media consumption curve. Storytelling narrative is very different now. Publishers, brands and agencies are responsible for creating content with a meaningful relation to the consumer’s life in short little bite-sized pieces that doesn’t require much time.”

Bottle Rocket UX Strategist, Steve Clements

As a UX strategist, my interest in attending SXSW was to gain a better understanding of how to think about a connected device environment, some trends to consider, and be amazed. The sessions I attended didn’t disappoint and used some cool buzz words. The Future of Biometrics, My Sensors, My Data?, Nano Size Me: The Science of Small Talk, Penicillin 2.0: Sensor-Driven Health, and Reorientating UX Design for the Internet of Things were enlightening presentations among others. The leaders and companies that are on the bleeding edge of this integrated experience/product revolution include Skooks Pong of Synapse, Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, Rachel Kalmar of Misfit wearables, and Alfred Lui of Seer Labs.

I am not claiming any major revelations here but as an UX designer, the idea of being able to build an experience that includes various connected devices from wearables, to phones, to networked sensors, to environment, to my activity, and health are very intriguing indeed.  Having to think about big data, small data, data routines, mood, and performance relative to creating an app experience that offers value and utility is a great opportunity in our profession. One example was a bluetooth enabled asthma inhaler that used time, weather, location, season, and plants to adjust dosage amounts. To give you a sense of scale, Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign said “in healthcare 75% of adults have non-adherence to taking their meds which has a $300 billion impact resulting in 25,000 deaths annually. Any connected product and app that can positively affect this problem would have major impact on society.

One theme I did pick up on was that of “data control.” This makes sense as we all want control in our lives. We all think we own our data but we don’t. The premise John Wilbanks, of Sage Bionetworks, and Rachel Kalmar, of Misfit, were proposing is that “It’s no longer about data ownership, it is about control.” It is the concept of “open data” where and when users are willing to give up privacy for utility and convenience. Its how companies that need to share data (like healthcare) balance being competitive with being open. It’s not about hardware products but data products. It’s about future state societal implications when a person can put his/her genome data online. These were just some of the concepts that were really provocative and are just around the corner.

Another futuristic concept beyond that of wearables is the idea of “embeddables” or networked nano sensors. Sounds crazy but the idea of connecting sensors to smart devices is here today. At Bottle Rocket, we are in the early stages of exploring how Apple’s iBeacon can help our clients. Sensors are used in multiple fitness (Fitbit, Pebble, Nike+ FuelBand, Misfit Shine, Jawbone) and health care products today. So the idea of what is the future state for sensors was top of mind. The future state was described as hundreds of sensors outside and inside the body that anticipate your needs. It’s the idea of “advanced context awareness” and that “ambient replaces the device.” According to Alfred Lui of Seer Labs, “a user is interrupted on average 80 times/day now.” Just wait till the wearables market really heats up. He also explained how “we are crossing into the 4th era of information access.” I’m still processing that comment.

Bottle Rocket Director of Strategy, James Helms


For all the content, the new technology, the people and the parties that make SXSWi what it is, perhaps the most important takeaway I had from SXSW was: Keep your head up.

The increased emphasis on mobile over the last few years as led to more and more attention being focused on presenting brand experiences on a variety of phone and tablet form factors.  But in doing so, we’re severely limiting user experience; everyone is looking at his or her phone all the time.  And, SXSW was particularly bad.

As an experiment, I left my phone in my pocket as much as I could – I looked for faces in the crowd.  I found friends, colleagues, famous people, and people who were interested in me.  I looked at name badges, clothes, haircuts, art and the things that were posted on the columns.  I delighted in the spontaneous entertainment and characters that dotted 6th Street.  Okay, I snapped some pictures with my phone.  But I saved most of the social media perusing and posting for later.  I also saw an incredible number of people with their head hung over their phone, brow furrowed, staring at tiny screens.

People stared at their phones reviewing their schedules, their social media posts, and communication with their friends and their battery life instead of looking at the people around them, the content, the presenters, and the spectacle that is SXSW.  They were stopped in the middle of interactions, walking blindly through the crowd, sitting forlorn on the floor, tethering to an outlet.  Eyes focuses on screens – beautiful UI and all it implies – is increasing resulting in bad mobile user experiences: in short, people are experiencing a screen, not their lives.  And I don’t mean photographing your salad before you eat it.

As user advocates and app developers, we need to deliver a UX of discreet moments: brief, potentially invisible low-touch experiences that leave us free to talk, to look, to discover and to bravely interact with one another without missing the power mobile puts in our hands.  Experiments like Google Glass, throwing the UI in your face, don’t have it entirely right, but on your wrist, or stitched into your t-shirt is where the real power of mobile will lie… when we leave not only your hands free, but your eyes open to the world around you.

AWE Business Development Lead, JT White

SXSW has always been my favorite of the trade shows. It’s casual nature, discussion based “panels”, focus on creators and overall collaborative spirit has made it stand out above the rest. Since it’s inception, the Interactive portion of SXSW was meant to be exactly that, interactive. As the show has grown, attendance has blown up (to the point that I question if Austin can realistically continue to hold the event) and new disciplines of people have begun to attend, that interactivity has declined year over year. It’s beginning to feel a bit less special to me. I worry that as the show grows and caters more to large sponsorships and promotional panels than it does “brainstorming” and “collaborative” sessions, it becomes more a polished fashion show than it does the cutting room. The entrepreneurial bloodline of SXSW is why big companies should attend, to be reminded what it was like to roll up your sleeves and really create. I hope the folks in Austin see that too.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed SXSW this year. I got to listen to Ben Huh drop serious knowledge that “the attention pie isn’t shrinking, it’s thinning”. I got to see WWE superstar John Cena speak for 5 – 7 minutes in fluent (at least it sounded fluent) Chinese, telling the room that “International expansion is the future” of all our business. I got to further my opinion that “Gamificiation” can mean somewhere between 5 and 500 different things, depending on your audience. I counted over 20 “Glassholes” (Google glass users), only 1 of which I saw using them actively. I heard people from television companies, ad agencies and huge international travel companies agree that curating content specifically for mobile is the key to not only creating great experiences for consumers but also for advertisers and brands.

But most interesting was an open panel discussion with DirecTV’s Giorgio Vanzini, SVP of Product Development and Integration. For the first time, one of the major MVPD’s is opening an API service to allow the enormous amount of development talent to help create better experiences for users. Giorgio was open to feedback and ideas.  He was asking the audience what DTV could do to be more user friendly and, most of all, he was honest with his responses. This is a huge step towards a true TVE experience, and I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of that space. This was the moment that will bring me back to SXSW next year.