Posts tagged “austin”

Out and About: Steve at SXSW

Recently, we spent the week in Austin at SXSW. Here’s some of the observations and other highlights from the time there.

Anne encountered the Uncanny Valley with this video-projection-on-a-human-shaped-cutout.

In one session, I sat behind a cyborg.

Ridiculous marketing language abounds.

A cafe made use of physical “Like” buttons next to posted artwork. The LCD counter increments each time someone clicks the button. Curious to see interactions specific to the virtual world being replicated in the physical world. See here, previously.


The Frito pie is made from a bag of corn chips, where the bag is ripped open and topped with chopped onions, meat, sauce and cheese.


One really has to wonder about how complex everyday technology use can become. Even though Austin is fairly tech forward, this sign in the convention center is beyond ridiculous.


Gourdough’s used to be just an Airstream that served the biggest donuts you’d ever seen, but now they’ve opened a proper restaurant. Most if not all of the main courses (e.g., friend chicken) feature a donut.

Live music, including the Waco Brothers and Ian McLagan.

And of course, there were mascots.

Vote for Steve’s SXSW proposal: “The Power of Bad Ideas”

I’ve got a proposal in for next year’s SXSW conference. The talk I’m planning to do is entitled “The Power of Bad Ideas”

In business and in life, we pursue the good stuff and champion people who are known for their good ideas. But when we place too strong an emphasis on just the good, we may neglect to consider the bad ones. In design and in brainstorming, deliberately seeking out bad ideas is a powerful way to unlock creativity. Generating bad ideas can reveal our assumptions about the difference between bad and good, and often seemingly bad ideas turn out to be good ones. Jotly and Cow Clicker were jokes/parodies (e.g., not good ideas) that have been surprisingly successful. Neil Young and Crazy Horse have covered folk songs. An action blockbuster features a US president swinging a silver axe against vampires. In this talk, I’ll explore how opening up the bad idea valve can lead unexpectedly to the kind of success we aim for with our good ideas.

This talk picks up where my Core77 article and some recent blog posts (here, here) left off. I’m looking forward to developing the material further and talking it through live.

Part of the consideration that SXSW uses in sorting out their 3200 proposals is voting. I’d really appreciate your help: check out the page for the talk, add any comments, questions, or words of encouragement, and vote “thumbs up” (you’ll have to sign in or create an account if you don’t have one).

Thanks for your help!

Out and About: Steve at SXSW

I recently spent a while in Austin attending SXSW. Part work, part vacation, it was all fun and all inspiration (see, I’m now posting in rhyme???!!!). Here’s some of my observations and experiences.

Austin’s independence and weirdness are fairly unique and always enjoyable.

While there was a national uproar over an ad agency hiring homeless folks to circulate as wireless hotspots, FedEx hired non-homeless folks (we talked to them and yes, despite the cool outfit, they are not regular FedEx employees) to circulate as human phone chargers. No one raised a peep over this. It’s okay to to turn people into device support as long as they have sufficient income such that we don’t feel awkward?

A typical bewildering promotional scene. I’m unsure specifically what was happening here. Pose with this Grinch (I guess?) and tweet the photo with a hashtag for chance to win something? Anne posed for the picture but we never bothered to determine exactly what it was about. This sort of exchange and promotion was very common.

This was the moment I realized how much my localized norms had shifted. Over the course of a few days, we ate and drank and snacked for free. Wwe got delicious ice cream sandwiches for free; all we had to do was tweet something. We got a free lunch from FedEx, although they asked that we check in Foursquare. Moments before taking this picture we followed the trail of Ben-and-Jerry’s-eating-folks to find out where the cart was, asking of course for some tweet action in exchange. By the time I came upon this popsicle stand. I looked up and down to figure out what I had to do, or if they were just going to give me a frozen treat without any action. We were a little chatty, reading their sign out loud, but no one was initiating a transaction, finally the woman asks us “Do you work for Twitter?” (I guess since we had mentioned tweeting). Finally, the penny drops. “Oh,” she explains, “right now these are $2.50.” It was just a regular frozen-good-for-money cart! No special SXSW promotion or anything! And she’s located herself right across from the Convention Center – ground zero for crazy promotions (the spot where Kobayashi ate 13 grilled cheeses in one minute was just feet away)! Well! I walked away grumbling at the nerve of this person to try and ask for money for their food product!

Making new friends.

What does this mean? Kony went from viral slacktivism to stencil-art in a matter of days. Is this anti-Kony? It seems to be iconifying him with Che-like kitsch. That was fast!

Attention-grabbing scumbaags put realistic paper “clamps” on parked cars. Haw haw! Fooled ya! You didn’t really get clamped, just wanted to tell you about our great service! Ummmm, no, no, no. That moment – be it one second or 90 seconds – of angst and despair upon seeing your car clamped is not okay. You should not do business by upsetting people and then telling them that it was just a joke. I realize that’s the premise for prank television, but this is simply not acceptable for marketers to be doing. You can make me feel good, but you must not make me feel bad.

I’m intrigued by the proliferation of these backdrops in publicly accessible places, so that we too can play at doing a red carpet appearance. The opening party had an actively-posed-with backdrop that was not intended to see any of its traditional star usage. These backdrops were also throughout the Convention Center. Certainly the appeal is understandable (we made good use of a similar opportunity last year in Florence); perhaps this starts to replace the stick-your-head-through-a-painting-of-a-character; now it’s red carpet for the rest of us.

These folks in the yellow skinsuits were promoting SceneTap but found themselves seduced by a street hustler more skilled than themselves, doing some kind of of three-card-Monty meets card trick. And those onlookers wearing “MYSPACE IS DEAD” shirts are actually promoting Myspace,

Fun with The Daisies, or the unexpected pleasure of following a titanic sound down a back street only to find ourselves feet away from a young, skinny, long-haired rock-n-roll band kicking out the jams.

Other highlights

See also:

Discomfort, reframed (almost)

Two examples of hotels in noisy environments, where they each acknowledge (and try to reframe) the situation in order to provide the solution (earplugs).

Seattle’s Edgewater Hotel

Railroad Development in the Puget Sound Area is much more than just steel tracks and cars, but rather the network that helped lay the foundation for Seattle, the modern trading metropolis you see today. The lights, the tunnels, the tracks and cars are quintessential reminders of Seattle’s charm and history. Enjoy your stay where it all began…

Should the sounds of the passing trains disturb your sleep, please take a pair of earplugs, on the house.

Austin’s Hilton Garden Inn

Thank you for choosing the Hilton Garden Inn when staying in Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

While we cannot control the music we would like to provide you with this complimentary amenity to help ensure a good nights rest.

We hope this will make your stay more comfortable.

This is a design challenge we often encounter: in order to present a solution, you have to raise the possibility of the problem. Perhaps you wouldn’t even know about the problem if we didn’t tell you about it! In Seattle, I never heard the trains. In Austin, I did hear the music late late into the night.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t sleep with earplugs in, so the actual solution is limited, but the gesture towards the solution is definitely interesting. The four-star-ish Edgewater hits the history hard as if somehow you – with all the supposed noise – are connected with that. The Hilton Garden Inn, bad punctuation aside, takes a straightforward, three-star approach, but still reminds you that the reason you even need the earplugs is because of the experience you are part of. Hilton does better for relevance, but Edgewater weaves more of a story.

What you don’t see here is the presentation at the Edgewater. The card and the little box of earplugs were tucked away on a bit of molding such that I thought for at least a day that it was some sort of item left behind by a construction worker doing room maintenance.

The earplug packaging can be kinda ugly and both hotels are ceding total control of their presentation to their supplier. See Method on Virgin here for a related exmaple.

AC4D: Applications for next year are open

Last fall I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture to the students in the first class at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Over the past few years, a number of innovative programs have sprung up and I’ve spoken at a number of them. What I enjoyed specifically about the AC4D was the feeling of being at a start-up and the slightly up-start attitude. I got the sense that students and faculty were united by someone, somewhere along the way, telling them that they couldn’t do this. And they are doing it. The school is focusing on applying design to social change, but the discussion is about the problem solving power of design – to understand, reframe, and innovate, rather than the an excess of earnestness or worrying. I suspect their point of view is maybe what you could call post-worldchanging…of course you want to address homelessness, let’s use the tools we’ve got to look at it.

Later this year I’ll be one of many IxDA peeps who volunteered to mentor the winning team of the Interaction ’11 Student Competition: AC4D’s Kat Davis and Ruby Ku (while I didn’t know they would be the winners when I volunteered, I couldn’t be more pleased).

If you or someone you know would be interested in attending AC4D next year, check out their site. They are now taking applications.

Keeping it Weird

I made my second trip to Austin a couple of months ago and was struck again by the Keep Austin Weird ethos. Once you start seeing it, it’s fairly pervasive (i.e., tie-dyed souvenir shirts, tote bags, bumper stickers, keychains, etc. at the airport). Of course, memes become co-opted and corrupted. Here are two examples I found

A McDonald’s mural by David Soames gives new meaning to the term “counter culture”

Keeping Jesus Weird – a different and unpredictable faith conversation – offers a Ladies’ Night event, where women are the topic. I count two memes being repurposed here

I’m not sure that “Keep [thing that you’re selling] Weird” is going to work (even in Austin) for every possible brand, product, service, religion, or combination thereof, but it’s amusing to watch the purveyors try real hard to make it happen!

Ups and downs

After writing recently about managing the adoption of a new type of elevator UI, I found a particularly bad implementation of the norm at my hotel in Austin last weekend.

Unusually, there are two elevators on either side of two rooms.

Beside each elevator is this cautionary/alarmist admonishment:

“This button” refers to “these buttons – those ones down there” despite the horizontal arrow. But we can probably figure that out. The reason for this sign – an obvious afterthought is that there’s no place where you can stand and easily see both elevators at once. You must approach one elevator to press the button, and if you stand there and wait, you are likely to miss the arrival of the elevator if it doesn’t come to that door. There is a standard solution: a light near each elevator door that lights up just before the elevator arrives and the door opens. But (other than in the hotel lobby) they’ve neglected that and instead the hotel guest must be “alert” when doing a basic task like trying to get down for breakfast.

This is a well-known and long-solved situation; why the builders would choose to put the elevators around two rooms and then create such a poor experience would be interesting to explore. What were the design and other decision processes that led to this sub-optimal solution?

We need your votes for our SXSW proposals!

The conference lineup is chosen partially based on input (i.e., voting) from the community. Even if you don’t attend, you still have a voice about what the discourse should be in our various fields. Not to mention, it’s a great way to support us! Visit each of the two talks below and click on the “thumbs up” icon. Add your thoughts, or comments as well!

Diving Deep: Best Practices For Interviewing Users

While we know, from a very young age, how to ask questions, the skill of getting the right information from users is surprisingly complex and nuanced. This session will focus on getting past the obvious shallow information into the deeper, more subtle, yet crucial, insights. If you are going to the effort to meet with users in order to improve your designs, it’s essential that you know how to get the best information and not leave insights behind. Being great in “field work” involves understanding and accepting your interviewee’s world view, and being open to what they need to tell you (in addition to what you already know you want to learn). We’ll focus on the importance of rapport-building and listening and look at techniques for both. We will review different types of questions, and why you need to have a range of question types. This session will explore other contextual research methods that can be built on top of interviewing in a seamless way. We’ll also suggest practice exercises for improving your own interviewing skills and how to engage others in your organization successfully in the interviewing experience.

For more on interviewing, you can check out our UIE Virtual Seminar and the follow-up podcast we did with Jared Spool.

Mommy, Where Do Good Products Come From?
(with Gretchen Anderson)

Business case studies are the ultimate in reductionism: A complex business activity rooted in a specific context of people, company culture, time, and place is boiled down to a few key ideas. Consultants, designers, students, and people who read Malcolm Gladwell are especially prone to this form of simplification. While these simplified stories can be helpful as touchstones, we just need to remember that they are often apocryphal archetypes more than investigative summaries. Or people confuse the terms innovation and invention; looking for breakthrough ideas sends companies into a frenzied search for “new” things not great or disruptive things. In this session, we will explore some different pathways to creating great product ideas. As designers and researchers, we’re experienced enough to know that design research isn’t the only approach or even always the best approach (a point of view that Don Norman vehemently argued in recent writings). For instance, design research wouldn’t be sufficient to create a disruptive innovation like Gowalla. We’ll outline a framework that looks at different approaches to idea generation, including corporate competencies and culture, customer needs and cultural context, and technological innovation.

For more on this topic, you can check out our interactions column Some Different Approaches to Making Stuff (PDF). Also, listen to Steve and Gretchen in conversation about the speed of innovation.

Thanks for your votes!

Also see:

Slides and audio from UX Process Improved: Integrating User Insight at SXSW

At SXSW last month, I presented UX Process Improved: Integrating User Insight with Aviva Rosenstein. I’m posting the slides and audio here.

Listen to audio:

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Cutting Thru Clutter at SXSW

As David Armano writes about SXSW “Hundreds of vendors, brands and companies vie for your attention.” This was certainly one of my big surprises from the recent SXSW event (my first time attending). From the huge attendee bag o’ crap with every kind of sticker, sample beverage, light-up pen, button, pamphlet, coupon, invite, brochure, and screen cleaner imaginable, to the half-dressed-skinny-girls inviting us to try a WiFi cafe, I was struck how by showing up in Austin I was essentially a captive audience to be marketed to. There was free food-and-drink (the Ice Cream Man on 6th street hands ice cream to passerby, with a Nokia napkin; the Sobe people were giving out psych-ward-meds-sized portions), free electricity (via Belkin and Chevy), and on and on.

Pepsi had large area with several zones, including tents for…I guess…video conferencing. I saw people hanging out at the bar drinking small portions of Pepsi, but not many making use of this service.

Bing had a fleet of Town Cars, as well as hostess-y types that would offer you a free ride.

This bus was promoting the new book from Tony Hsieh (of Zappos). I just saw it driving around, or worse, idling. I never saw anyone get on, or off. Was it an eco-nightmare billboard? Or some sort of service? I think it’s kind of creepy!

Sidewalk advertising, of course. Let’s hope they cleaned it up after, or that the city was prepared to fine them. I haven’t checked out this URL, but feel free to and let us know in the comments. Or, really, why bother?

There are three concurrent/adjacent festivals: Interactive, Film, and Music. Each of them serves up an insane range of options, well beyond what we normally encounter in our choice-flooded lives. The net effect (and my theme here) is that content creators are expected to shout louder (or more interestingly) to create awareness for their product. Here are ads for all sorts of things, including a cryptic phrase about a hurting vagina (which turned out to be from a movie).

Those posters don’t go up by themselves. It takes work.

As Austin reached beyond-critical-mass, 6th Street, the live music area, was closed to traffic. People were passing out more pamphlets and flyers promoting their events. And here’s where many of them ended up.

Just because.

Drawing attention to yourself to promote an event.

iPad guy was the triggering noticing event that led to this post. On my second-to-last night I saw this guy walk by, with a cardboard iPad around his neck (yes, kids, this was before the iPad was actually available). I yelled out “Hey, iPad guy!” and he stopped and let me take his picture. We introduced ourselves, and I asked him why he was wearing an iPad around his neck (see, that ethnography experience comes in handy!!!). His answer? So people will talk to him, like I did (turns out he works for a Search Engine Optimization firm, so…). While SXSW is a hyper-condensed environment, it represents some early-adopter aspects of typical daily life, and so I was struck to see the continuum between the promotion of Pepsi, Sobe, Bing, an indie film, an indie band, and an individual.

I’ve had my experience with guerrilla methods of promoting myself (from wearing a giant sombrero when campaigning for student government, with the slogan “the little guy in the big hat” to wearing a very loud SpiderMan tie when interviewing for jobs at a CHI conference long ago…only to be upstaged by the guy with a resume-dispensing-box with an embedded recording of him giving his elevator pitch) but the past seemed quainter, where the extreme needs (getting elected, getting a job) permitted extreme norms. But at SXSW it seems like everything is a promotion for something and I feel just a little bad seeing us take our lessons on how to connect with each other from big brands. Is this an exception or an emergent norm?

My favorite content from SXSW:

Check out more of my SXSW pictures here.

Slides and audio from Integrating User Insight, my presentation with Aviva Rosenstein, are here.

You may also like License to Shill, a FreshMeat column from 2004.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Lu's: A Pharmacy for Women is North America's first women-only pharmacy – In Vancouver's tough Downtown Eastside where many pharmacies feel risky because they focus on dispensing methadone to heroin addicts. The welcoming atmosphere of the new full-service pharmacy was designed in conjunction with the University of British Columbia's school of architecture.
  • Alaska Airlines to fly San Jose-Austin 'nerd bird' – The route which connects the two tech hubs has been dropped by American, the original Nerd Bird carrier, and then picked up by Alaska, starting September 2.
  • Would you like ketchup with your cake? – To commemorate its Canadian centennial and thank Canadians for 100 years of support, Heinz has created The Great Canadian Heinz Ketchup Cake — an ideal dessert for any celebration. It's red, perfectly spiced and delicious. Think carrot cake without all the work. "We all think of ketchup as the perfect complement to hotdogs, hamburgers and fries, but its unique taste makes ketchup an ideal flavour enhancer for many recipes, including desserts," explains Amy Snider. The professional home economist and culinary nutritionist works with Heinz. "Heinz Ketchup not only adds great flavour to the cake, but it also creates a wonderfully moist texture."

    (Thanks, Mom)

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • American Airlines' 'Nerd-bird' flights between San Jose, CA and Austin, TX to end – The flights of mostly electrical engineers, computer programmers and other tech-savvy passengers have been run by American Airlines daily since 1992. Because the recession has cut sharply into business and other travel, American has announced it will discontinue its twice-a-day nonstop flights between the two tech centers as of Aug. 25.
  • Derivative (or, if you prefer, rip-off) book titles that capitalize on other successful books – Ultimately, the best locutions are those that credit quotidian, trivial objects with earthshaking influence, like “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” by Mark Kurlansky. The more obvious the significance of the subject, the less successful the title. After all, where’s the element of surprise or wit in “A Man Without Equal: Jesus, the Man Who Changed the World”?

    Some of the more unlikely candidates endowed with superhuman powers by authors include “Tea: The Drink That Changed the World,” “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World,” “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” and “Sugar: The Grass That Changed the World.”

    The tricky part is gauging just when the magic wears off. “Essentially it works until it doesn’t work,” Mr. Dolan said, “and you hope you’re on the right side of that line.”


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