Kevin Cheng  

SxSW Panels Pt 1/3

March 19th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

SxSW Interactive was an incredible time. The four days passed by like a whirlwind. We met a ton of people, saw a lot of interesting panels, went to a few parties and, as I mentioned before, won a web award, too! Look for some highlights from the OK/Cancel perspective with pictures early next week. For now, let’s talk about the panels we attended and some general impressions of them. The full list of panels can be found at the SxSW website. Tom and I found so many of interest that we were forced to split up and cover as many as possible, sometimes even jumping between multiple panels in the same timeslot.

Most panels raised at least one or two interesting questions that I felt were worth more thought and discussion. Below, I’ve given a brief synopsis of each panel I attended, my views, and areas I felt required more thought:

Instead of trying to discuss all of these in one big comments thread, I’ve created discussion threads for each panel.

Today’s Gaming, Tomorrow’s Virtual Worlds

You may notice that I had a heavy leaning towards the gaming related panels. I found a lot of panels focused on one of mobile applications, accessibility, or gaming. All of these topics interest me but I’ve always felt gaming was the frontier where we had the most to learn from.

I was rather hopeful when I saw that the conference was opening with a discussion between Garriot and Spector, two of the most talented game designers out there. Unfortunately, a large part of the discussions revolved around the economics of games (online games vs single player, console vs PC) rather than the design aspects. In fact, while they both disagreed on many areas, the one thing they repeatedly agreed on was simply that game designing is really really hard and they’re good at it. I don’t disagree but I wish game designers would look more into what aspects make games as good as they are more and impart some of that knowledge.

Game design, as mentioned in a previous thread, is very much tied to interface and of course, user experience. Experts in game design have a tacit knowledge of what makes a game immersive, addictive and fun. If we can identify these factors in more detail, we could apply them to other areas like handheld devices, museums, interactive kiosks or even desktop applications.

Spector talked a lot about how the MMORPGs only get a fraction of the number of consumers single player games like Grand Theft Auto do and thus, he’s far more interested in reaching out to the larger audience. Garriot retorted with a claim that MMORPGs is in its early phases where the market isn’t yet saturated and hence has valuable profit margins whilst console games for games like GTA make a pittance. I have to agree with Lord British. MMORPGs have yet to mature and they’re only just starting to explore the true potential beyond just making a sandbox. They also mentioned in passing the concept of merging the experiences such that you live in an MMORPG world but then you form groups (or squads) and enjoy a more intimate experience with a more defined story.

Garriot also gave some rather weak reasons why the PC was still where online gaming was at in the future. He cited that people who own consoles either have PCs or don’t and those that don’t presumably don’t have internet. He then makes a huge leap that not having internet means these people are not inclined towards setting up internet accounts and plugging things into walls. Needless to say, as visionary as I think he can be, I think he’s pretty full of it in this case.

What makes good game design?
How does game design apply to other user experiences?
Are MMORPGs the future? How will the change in the future?
Will consoles make PC gaming redundant?
Discussion Thread >>

Designing Entertainment: Let’s Play a Game

The panelists here were industry design firms who designed graphics and animation for games and game magazines. The subtitle “Let’s Play a Game” was really rather misleading in my mind. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see what type of education the Gemini School of Visual Arts, founded by Big Sesh studios, gave to their designers. A heavy focus was spent on traditional media and techniques before they used computers in year 3.

Design is one of the most difficult aspects to teach. Partially because of the misconceptions that it’s basically black magic. Teaching basic theory such as composition and colour is probably a good idea. I wonder, however, if forcing people to learn traditional drawing on paper is necessary anymore. As Tom mentioned, painting beautiful pictures digitally is possible but requires some level of transition when one is used to traditional painting. Why should we treat digital art like a digitized version of traditional art instead of a medium of its own? Think how print designers tried to make early web pages like they did print. The principles are simply different. Perhaps we should be teaching artists to draw natively on a computer if they choose that as their medium.

Another interesting topic that was raised in Q&A was how creative teams split their work across multiple people for one project. One example was “one does composition, while another does modeling and another does figure details.” I think splitting design work is equally challenging, requiring all involved to deliver a similar style that sends a uniform message and compartmentalizing the various design portions enough to be usefully divvied amongst the team.

Should people be taught to draw natively on a digital canvas?
How do others split their design work?
Discussion Thread >>

Accessibility is for Everybody

Jeff Veen spoke about how the designers he worked with nowadays all develop natively for the web. These designers were unlike the print turned web designers of old and took into consideration aspects such as scalability, resizeability, separation of form and content, alternate text for images, etc. In other words, good designers and good design built led to accessible web pages. Obviously, some adjustments and tweaks may have to be made but nothing so drastic that a redesign is necessary.

Wendy Chisholm of W3C and a leading expert in web accessibility used a nice car analogy. Almost everyone knows how to drive but had to be taught how to drive. Very few know how the car works. At the moment, creating web accessible pages requires an understanding of how the engine works. W3C’s goal, in her mind, was to reach a point where they simply needed to learn to drive. I think Veen’s point actually aligns well with Wendy’s point of view. Good designers have that knowledge and understanding of how the engine works. It would be nice to reach a point where that wasn’t necessary.

However, I’m not sure how attainable such a goal is. No matter how much WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver and GoLive try, designers and web developers need to know what goes on under the hood for anything but the most basic of designs.

John Slatin from Institute of Technology and Learning talked about how accessibility could be used to spark creativity rather than hinder it and demonstrated a play production which had captions as well as a verbal introduction and description of all the characters in the play. The audience not only responded well to the introductions and descriptions, they found them humourous and Slatin found it added an unexpected dimension to their show.

While the example was certainly interesting, not all ventures are creatively driven and accessible modality alternatives could easily detract from a user’s experience or at a minimum, distract from the intended user experience.

Will we ever reach a point where we can simply know the guidelines without knowing the development details like HTML?
Does the existence of standards hinder creativity?
Discussion Thread >>

Getting the Most out of SXSW

A number of panelists discussed their strategies for networking with new people, selecting panels and attending after hour events. Personally, I didn’t gain much from this panel. Their advise for networking essentially boiled down to “meet 5 people between each panel and don’t be afraid to talk to people.” A fair and noble pursuit but I don’t think anyone who chose to attend that panel didn’t know the value of networking. More likely, the audience contained new conference attendees (such as myself) who hadn’t met the people there year after year and didn’t know how to break the ice. As for selecting which panels and events to attend, I think any intelligent conference goer knows what interests them the most and can make those decisions on their own.

Randomly going up to strangers and talking to them is a valid strategy for networking but not as valuable as it should be. Although I’d lived in Austin for four years, I’d never attended the Interactive portion of SxSW so I was a little nervous myself but I think I’ve gleaned a few gems in networking strategy since the first day. I don’t claim to be an expert but I hope these lessons I learnt are useful to others.

  1. Get to know who you’re meeting. Read up on people you know will be at the conferences. Check out some blogs if need be. Instead of simply saying, “Hi” you can then say, “Hi, I’ve read your site” More importantly, you are presumably interested in meeting the person because you have something in common so bring up those topics. By reading up on the attendees, you are also prepared with a list of people you simply must meet at the conference. Finding a specific person can be difficult, however, so consider e-mailing the person and letting them know you’re at the conference and give some contact information. I’m glad I did this and managed to meet up with one or two readers who were attending.
  2. Talk to panelists. Typically, panelists are happy to spend a few minutes chatting after their panel. If not, you can always catch them at an event and mention that you attended and talk about what you did or did not like about the panel. Of course, being constructive helps.
  3. Talk to people just before lunch or near the end of the day. More often than not, you will be invited to lunch with whomever you’re talking to if their group is organizing something. Going with a group is a great way to …
  4. Get introductions. Part of the intimidation was the feeling that the crowd all knew each other very well. However, people are happy to introduce you to others they know if you’ve been talking to them. Jay Allen and Dave Shea, both great contributors to the web development community in their own way, almost didn’t manage to meet each other. Dave mentioned that he wanted to meet Jay and, having just talked to Jay myself, I promptly sought him out again and introduced them to each other. Let people know who you’re interested in meeting and keep an open mind about meeting others not on your list, too.
  5. Attend the parties. This point should be a no-brainer. Between panels, there’s very little time to talk to people and the atmosphere is different from a bar. Go to the parties, talk to people you briefly met during the day and their friends.
  6. Skip Panels. Veen asked us to join them for some drinks on the first day. Ironically, I declined in order to attend this panel about making the most of SXSW. I never did get another chance to have more meaningful conversations with the Adaptive Path folks as I rarely saw them outside the panels for the rest of the conference. Give yourself the option to skip a panel.
  7. Have an icebreaker. Aside from topical conversations like the panels, you might have something else as an icebreaker to start conversation. Tom and I had a rather unique device of OK/Cancel trading cards, featuring usability and interaction design gurus as superheroes from our Nothin’ But a UCD Thang series. We gave two of the same design to each person we met so they would trade and network with others. We also gave an additional card for each introduction we were given to someone we had not previously met.<./li>

Admittedly, Tom and I had a bit more leverage to start conversations randomly but we were still newbies to the SxSW world.

What are ways you use to network at conferences?
What do you think of the ideas I use?
Discussion Thread >>

6 Responses to “SxSW Panels Pt 1/3”
Liz wrote:

I would like to attend next year. It will be my first time. Do I have to bring my laptop, or do most folks travel light? Is the hotel included in the fee? Thankyou for the info and I love the cards!

KC wrote:

Liz, I do travel light (aside from a big box of trading cards this year) but I highly recommend bringing your laptop to conferences like SxSW. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see what goes on in the chat sessions concurrent with the panels. Of course, depending on your preference, you may also take notes with it (as I do).

Unfortunately, hotels are not included in most conference fees. SxSW is no exception.

Hope that helps!

Liz wrote:

Thanks KC, this helps tremendously. Hopefully I will meet you there next year!

Brenda wrote:

Hey Tom-

I was stuck at the end of a row of seats when I saw you handing out those trading cards to people at the other end of the row. I was disappointed I didn’t get to say hello, I love the comic and the HCI Rap and the site… and I wanted a couple of cards too, of course. ;)

I looked for you in your bright red shirt later but didn’t see you again. So now you’re on my list of “people to say hello to next year.”

See you then!

KC wrote:


Tom and I will be at CHI2004 in Vienna if you happen to be going to that as well. We will keep everyone updated on what other conferences we will be attending as they come up.

Also, we will hopefully have other ways for people to get the trading cards soon. Stay tuned!

Jane, designer wrote:

Huh! The more I read about the SXSW conference in the internet, the more I regret I wasn’t there… I’ll do my best to go there next year!!

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?