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How Engineering and Serendipity Came Together at SXSW

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By Leah Buley

It’s time to wrap up my SXSW 2012 trip. My visit this year was a short one. Still, it was long enough to take in some interesting sessions, witness the impressive scale of the event (and by implication the whole interactive industry) and most importantly, experience at least one celebrity sighting.

One session that caught my attention was called Engineering Serendipity (which included panelists from OkCupid, Dropbox, Sonar, Meet Gatsby, and Geoloqi.com). While serendipity isn’t an explicit focus of my design work, customer delight certainly is (being a core part of Intuit’s mission). And the two are often connected. In our work at Intuit, we see that one aspect of delighting customers is building moments of pleasant surprise into our products–and surprise and serendipity are kissing cousins. What was surprising about the discussion was just how much engineering and hard data goes into the manufacturing of serendipity.

The panelists reinforced that technology provides an opportunity to mine people’s data and expose them to things that are highly likely to surprise and delight them, creating a feeling of serendipity. I found myself wondering how comfortable I am as a consumer with people mining my data to serve me things that I may not have explicitly said that I want, but the Engineering Serendipity panel made me see that some pretty good things can result: finding new interests, meeting new friends, even, in the case of OkCupid, finding love. This broader theme of using our human data to help enrich our experiences will undoubtedly be a growing consideration for designers and developers. And, as software-enabled tools and open APIs make this data available to not just developers and designers, but everybody, these will be questions that small business owners and consumers will be confronting as well.

Speaking of serendipity, while SXSW may be big and overwhelming, it redeems itself by delivering surprising encounters and chance meet-ups. Again and again, pouring through a stream of people, suddenly a familiar face emerges and you realize, hey, there’s someone I worked with 10 years ago. Or that’s a long lost friend I’ve been out of touch with. Or, that might even be someone who is just a little bit famous. I’m pretty sure I ate lunch next to Rob Riggle, of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show fame. And walking home in the drizzling rain, a pretty girlish face peeked from under a big hat. I could swear it was Zooey Deschanel, the actor and musician. Or, who knows? Maybe they’re just apparitions from the ever-surprising, ever-serendipitous wonderland that is SXSW.

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.

Allison Green

Allison likes that there's something new to learn or share every day. At Intuit she gets to tell the story of the company culture, the innovation happening behind the scenes and the importance Intuit customers play in everything that happens.

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