#SXSWi Hasn't Jumped the Shark. Have You?

11 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

It is all clear now. I figured it out. My absolute favorite thing about SXSW is this: The pretentious people say it has jumped the shark. Do you know all those people who are so busy telling everyone “There’s nothing new at SXSW”? Yeah, they’re gone. The people who remain are the ones who are taking risks. The ones who are creating new and interesting stuff. And because the naysayers have taken their negative attitudes home, the makers are free to do even more cool stuff.

Bring on the Banality!

They say: "The Panels are Banal". I say: "AWESOME!".

Yes, there are more panels filled with people discussing things that were new four and five years ago. Isn't that great! This validates the whole industry and ethos! The "design matters" movement is undeniable because the evidence is everywhere. We celebrate it every year now in Austin Texas! As if on cue, the paradox enters stage right. The most banal panel somehow managed to also be the most interesting one (as evidenced by the around the block line of people hoping to somehow see it!)

I was lucky enough to get a seat in the "Big Data Democracy: The Rise of Analytics" panel with Dan Wagner, Chief Analytics Officer of the Obama Presidential Campaign, Zac Moffatt, Digital Director for Mitt Romney's Campaign, and Tom Serres, CEO of Rally.org. The topic of the panel was how ridiculous masses of data are moving the world forward, in real ways that affect all of us at once. How else would you explain the previous presidential campaign and the current battle of ideas being played out on the national stage? Given that big data and analytics are topics at the forefront of where digital is going, the "new world to be discovered by us" feeling in the room was palpable and inspiring. This incredibly banal, and somehow ridiculously interesting, topic was exactly what I was talking about in my prediction for 2013: Big Data Finds Its Andy Warhol.

Dan, Zac and Tom spoke about the crazy world we are all in right now. The world where data scientists are the ones shaping our debate, our future, our art, our culture, our politics, our causes, everything. Zac talked about the persuasion experiments his team ran across the nation, with near real time feedback and analysis that allowed the campaign machine to rapidly adjust content and targeting, with the ultimate goal of securing the election with winning ideas and narratives.

The culture of analytics, testing and experimentation is proven to work on both the national and non-profit stages as well as the business stage. Let the fun commence! These cultures of experimentation are what allow the conjoined twins of successful innovation and sustainable innovation mindsets to arise.

Bring on the Experimentation!

They say: "It's so hard to find the good speakers and sessions because there are so many poseurs and wannabes presenting." I say: "EXCELLENT!".

It's only the most devoted, creative and talented of pretenders and wannabes that actually create the future! Just think about the amount of craziness, pretending and faith that must have been present to allow people like Elon Musk and the Leap Motion guys to create our today and tomorrow

Yes, the chaff far outnumber the wheat and it is significantly time consuming to filter the good sessions out of the schedule. Isn't that great! Now SXSW is even more of a place where you can enjoy discovering new things, because you have to work at it! 

SXSW isn't getting worse, it's just making you work harder. And that's a good thing. Now SXSW is even more of an adventure, because you have to have faith that you'll find the right session. You'll have to put trust in the process of experimentation and data collection to find the session that is perfect for you. Given that your context and receptiveness are always changing, it makes it even more challenging! Game On!

And just when it was needed, the paradox entered yet again (this time from stage left). In contrast to the best session on Big Data, the greatest session on the culture of experimentation proved that it is not how big your data is, it's what you do with it.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Innovation and Leadership in the Agile Age session given by Scott Cook, Chairman and Founder of Intuit. One of my driving themes this year was to try to find and attend as many sessions on innovation as possible and have faith that some would speak to me and inspire me to bring home the big idea that was communicable to my enterprise.

Scott Cook's session on innovation was just the right one. Scott has built a shrine to intuition, faith and experimentation in the form of big company that has brought fun to the what is amongst the most un-fun things to do.

So many people seek certainty. So few people understand that absolute certainty is what we fear the most. We all know that the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. Isn't it ironic that the two things we can all agree as "certainties" are the things nearly all of us fear the most. Scott named and built his company on the idea of faith in experimentation. Scott and his playmates at Intuit were crazy enough to believe they could make paying taxes fun. Faith in experimentation is what allowed them to achieve what every rational human being would say is impossible.

Scott kicked off his talk by describing how he found his kindred spirit in Eric Ries, author of "The Lean Startup". Intuitively knowing his future was with Eric, he personally called him and invited him to come to Intuit to teach everyone the way of "Build - Measure - Learn".

Old paradigms of product development go something along the lines of:


Both Scott and Eric saw the flaw in this way of development. There was a clear need to bring users to the left. To bring users in earlier. This not so new idea, that UXers have been championing for years, is only just beginning to show how valuable and necessary it really is. The new product development model espoused by Eric and embraced by Scott is this:


This model, combined with a rigor for finding very small hypothesis to test, is what led to the rapid and ridiculous success of SnapTax. Imagine a world where you could do your taxes in 10 minutes or less and have it be fun. You don't have to imagine because SnapTax has already proved it possible.

Using your phone, you can take a picture of your W2, answer a few basic questions and voila! Taxes filed!. Don't believe that it's fun? Here is a representative review from the appstore: "I thought I'd try this app just for fun and here I am 15 minutes later with my taxes filed!!! This could not have been any easier than that!!".

Scott did not create SnapTax himself. Scott created an organization capable of creating SnapTax. Scott did this with one insight. It is not the job of leaders to make the right decisions. It is the job of leaders to make the experimentation process fast and easy. The secret to creating an organization that innovates is this:

Learning Opportunities

Have your leaders champion a grand challenge. Install an experimentation culture and system. Pull insights from successes and failures. Have your leaders live by the same rules and results of experimentation themselves."

This process, combined with a drive to identify small, testable, leap-of-faith hypotheses is what will propel your enterprise into rapid progress mode. 

Bring on the Old!

They say: "There is nothing new being talked about at SXSW." I say: "YEAH, BABY!".

Repetition of good ideas is the secret to making them real. The winning ideas are the ones that are repeated most frequently in the widest array of contexts. Finding our creative future just might depend on finding and unearthing the wisdom of the past and putting it to use again. Golden Krishna had a new insight on "No UI" in August of 2012. He discovered that it wasn't new at all. His insight was already out there since at least 1988 when Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC coined “ubiquitous computing.” In 1995, his abstract on Calm Technology stated:

The impact of technology will increase ten-fold as it is imbedded in the fabric of everyday life. As technology becomes more imbedded and invisible, it calms our lives by removing annoyances while keeping us connected with what is truly important.”

In 1998, Donald Norman wrote “The Invisible Computer.” The publisher wrote:

...Norman shows why the computer is so difficult to use and why this complexity is fundamental to its nature. The only answer, says Norman, is to start over again, to develop information appliances that fit people's needs and lives.”

Golden first publicly spoke on his viral blog posting this year at SXSW in a session called "The Best Interface is No Interface" and I was lucky enough to choose to go to it without knowing anything about Golden or his crusade against user interface based thinking before.

Golden kicked off his talk by explaining the problem he has been inspired to solve. Stating that "we have been moving away from solving human problems" and that "our love for the digital interface is out of control" he began to identify the root cause and give concrete examples of the problem. UX professionals have been so married to their own formalist tools and methods that they believe all problems are solvable by putting a series of screens in front of people. Krishna dreams of a screen-less world.


His concrete comparison of BMW's newer screen-based "solution" to opening a car door without car keys, which requires 13 steps to unlock a car door, to Mercedes Benz' screen-less solution illustrates his point very clearly. Krishna talked about a handful of other examples like goodyear's tire innovation that truly solves the low tire-pressure dilemma, and then gave a brief course in how to think in the way of "No UI".

After the session, I caught up with Golden and threw out the ultra-banal, and ultra-surreal example which made us both laugh. Self flushing toilets and no-touch sinks. Screen based thinking results in "iFlush" and "iWash". No UI thinking results in sensors that remove the problem of touching public restroom toilets altogether. Krishna also talked about how the No UI paradigm only works well when you still assume failure of the automation and create a back-up methodology. Strangely enough, no flush toilets show this as well. Picture a city full of no-flush toilets combined with no-touch sinks, during a multi-day black-out. Ew!. Without the backup option of manually operated valves on both toilets and sinks, a public health crisis is waiting to happen.


SXSW is Saving the World

On his original blog posting, Golden points to a 1999 talk by Kevin Ashton. Kevin gave a talk about “The Internet of Things.” Kevin identified this idea: “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.”  

This brings me full circle. Here is the formula:

  • Sense, collect and react to as much seemingly banal data as possible.
  • Identify big, world changing challenges.
  • Identify small hypotheses that could possibly add to an eventual solution.
  • Test these hypotheses with real people and incorporate your learnings into future decisions, hypothesis and experiments.
  • Persevere and have faith.
  • Demonstrate that nothing is impossible.
  • Others will get inspired to solve challenges of their own.
  • Help others to find forgotten or overlooked wisdom and apply it to the problems of the world.
  • Waste, Loss and Cost are reduced.
  • Repeat.

If you were one of the people who left SXSW this year uninspired, I would ask you to ask yourself this: Was it uninspiring, thus you were uninspired, or, were you perceiving it as uninspiring and thus it was? 

Editor's Note: You have to be inspired by Stephen Fishman. He tells it as he sees it and he makes you step and take the time to consider your own ideas and opinions. Lots of good stuff to read here.

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