By Leah Buley
Greetings from Austin, Texas, where Friday marked day one of the annual festival / conference / trade show / bacchanal that is South by Southwest. For those of you who’ve never attended before, SXSW is huge. I mean HUGE. One taxi driver told me that 250,000 visitors descend on Austin for the event. (That count probably includes all three festivals: interactive, film, and music.) Let’s do some math. The Austin metro area has almost 2 million residents. That means the population grows by roughly 10 percent basically overnight. And all those people are, for the most part, in the same dozen city blocks. That explains why the Austin Convention Center appeared to be a literal sea of people on Friday morning, as I tried to find my way to the registration area. When I do find it, I discover a waiting line roughly four city blocks long. And that’s just to get into a room where you then wait in line some more. It’s unreal. It was common for people to wait in line two hours.
Day one for me was focused primarily on preparing for my panel on designing for context. As the products we create are accessed through multiple devices, different channels and a wide audience, there’s an increasing need to design for context. The topic and the reputation of my fellow panelists for being witty and smart drew quite a crowd. Andrew Crow, Design Director at GE, along with three other seasoned user experience professionals: Ben Fullerton, Design Director at Method; Ryan Freitas, founder of About.me; and Nate Bolt, President and founder of the user research firm Bolt | Peters presented with me in a Radisson ballroom that was filled to capacity. The panel itself seemed to be over before it started. Our discussion was wide-ranging, covering the challenges of designing for time, location, ecosystem, form factor, and relationships. We tried to pepper the discussion with real-life examples, and I shared Intuit examples ranging from SnapTax and Mint, and Tax Online Mobile Accountant. Thanh Quach, visual designer for the Mint app was in the audience, as were several other fellow Intuiters. It was nice to see some friendly faces.
As is often the case with conferences, the most interesting things seem to happen in the moments between sessions. Of course with SXSW, that usually means a lot of parties and, notoriously, drinking. But I’m also seeing evidence of some interesting commerce going on. The task and errand service TaskRabbit seems to be getting a lot of use. Already I’ve seen it used to have a case of wine delivered to a hotel room in the middle of the night, and to bring two boxes of still-warm churros as a welcome snack to the attendees of our panel. (The churros were an inspired idea from my fellow panelists Nate and Andrew, but it’s TaskRabbit that made it possible.)
Still, the biggest event at SXSW so far has been the weather. It seems to alternate between a light downpour and a deluge of biblical proportions. Staying dry is not an option. To make matters worse, the panels, discussions, and workshop are scattered among a half dozen hotels around town, which pretty much requires you to venture out. The result? A lot of soggy technorati. Still, attendees seem to be weathering the storm with enthusiasm and good spirits.
Leah Buley is a design strategist at Intuit focused on making it easy for customers to manage their financial lives. When she’s not working, you can usually find her at the park with her dog Roku and husband Chris.