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The tang of BBQ is still fresh in my nostrils, and I can still feel the wind blowing through my hair from whizzing around Austin’s streets on an electric scooter....

Yes, I’ve just got back from South by South West. My fifth visit in the last ten years but my first since 2014.

A lot has changed for the better - the panels felt tighter, the addition of scooters (Bird, Lime et al) means you can explore far more of the city… Some has got worse - the corporate cantinas on Rainey Street are a poor substitute for 6th St actually having some soul, and the crowds are now so big that queuing for popular sessions is almost a full-time occupation.

However, some things remain resolutely the same. The most inspiring and interesting talks are the ones where you have only passing knowledge of the subject matter. And never ending days of BBQ will make you understand why having a tight belt in America is so hard.

Oh, and it’s miraculous that the SXSW app is still so shit.

Why is it that interactive festivals and conferences still can’t get digital right? Yes, I know that digital folk are the hardest group to please. And I know that a big portion of South by attendees are there for the music and film tracks… But the organisers must have had seven or eight bites of the cherry by now. They’re investors in Eventbase (who power the SXSW app) for Christ’s sake! Perhaps that’s the problem. Eventbase is ‘trusted’ by half of the top 20 technology companies in the world to power their event apps. After all, we all know how high the user experience bar is set for companies like IBM, Microsoft and CISCO.

I don’t mean to be facetious. The app really is shit. Let’s break it down.

The browsing experience is broken

The sheer expansion of the event over the last few years (especially since the adfolks started going) has been almost breathtaking to witness. There are now hundreds of venues and potentially hundreds of events happening in each time slot. It’s literally mind-boggling.

The app makes the bad job of navigating all this content even worse. The app provides search, filters, tracks, locations, maps and recommendations. And yet somehow none of these help you discover the really good stuff. Countless times my colleagues and I fell back on scrolling through the schedule unfiltered. Consider that there are nearly a thousand events a day and you realise just how fucked up the experience is.

Pic: Caption: All the filters, all the time, filtering nothing

The main problem are the filters. There are 12 options at the top level (time, track, format, tag etc) and then some of these have 30 options or more inside of them. The functionality makes a crucial (and I think misjudged) assumption that you know what you’re looking for. For example, I’m into gaming, so narrow the list of a thousand items to just ‘gaming’.

The problem is that positive selections don’t always work. They force a user to start from zero and build from the ground up, and if you haven’t selected the ‘right’ choices then it’s highly likely you’ll miss highly interesting stuff. It limits in all the wrong ways.

What might be easier is reductive filtering: let me take things away from the list rather than adding them. For example, at a stroke let me remove all mentoring events and the trails for the corporate blow-hard pimp-houses. Boom! I suspect that you’d end up with personalised cream pretty quick.

Of course, an issue with this reductive approach is that it’s in SXSW interests for attendees to ‘feel’ that the event is a huge smorgasbord of events, even if they are outside your interest group. And some might say that choosing to remove (rather than choosing to view) content is rather negative.

However, the SXSW approach puts the user at the bottom of the event’s priorities. It’s mirrored in how the app’s poor information design hinders the user. The schedule is an epic list. How much more easier it would be to digest if the time frames were broken by a simple line divider. Amazingly, this simple technique is a tactic used in other parts of the app and it aids comprehension no end.

Pic: Caption: The main schedule (left) without the simple information design used to aid navigation in other parts of the app (right)

But not here. Perhaps the designers and organisers simply don’t want us to use the app in this way.

The stream of information is overloaded

The bombardment of information continues like a vein of death throughout the entire experience. (It’s difficult to discern how much of this is meant to help the attendee and how much is the through over-enthusiastic content or marketing deals.)

For example, every day I received a personalised recommendation email and a generic catch-all roundup. This is in addition to app notifications and the barrage of emails that arrived before even getting on the plane. So much information arrives that the communiques simply become noise to be ignored.

Unfortunately, the same applies to the recommended section of the app - a visual stream of the top events for me based on the items I’ve favourited (I think). The problem is that the combination of corporate whoredom and the failings in the app means that something that should be a useful feature doesn’t feel like it be trusted.

After all, I left Texas on the afternoon of Monday 11th. For days later I was still getting notifications, even when I wasn’t in the same country. Give it a break, or at least find a more useful way of keeping me in the content loop. The interactions - and my expectations - are different now I’m home.

Unfortunately the quality of the entire app experience does little to engender the trust or respect needed. Countless small (and big) decisions have been made that denigrate the overall finish.

The colour contrast for the navigation hamburger is unbelievably low. The icons often can’t be understood without a key. The listings are almost falling over with options and choices - all clumsily rammed into the page (honestly, there’s so much functionality that I was still discovering features on the last day). The quality of the scroll and animation on the main schedule listing almost defies belief in its cack-handedness. There it is! Oh no it isn’t! No, spoke too soon… And then if the schedule updates the app is completely frozen until finished.

Advertising? Really guys?

Where this dichotomy between business and user needs is most dispiriting is the role advertising plays in the app. Virtually every time the app opens a full screen interstitial for Showtime has to be manually dismissed. And that’s after a loading interstitial for the event itself!. Users also have to wade past Showtime ad banners in the schedule.

Pic: You know it must be a premium experience with two interstitials and a banner

Yes, I know. Events have to be paid for, and 75% of SXSW attendees come from the United States. However, this doesn’t place much value on the 25% of attendees who can’t even access Showtime.

BUT this is the most tech/screen savvy audience in the world. Does crude sponsorship really still work? Banner blindness has been a thing for a long time. I hate it that the advertising model is still let’s put more shit in more places. Has some tiny conversion metric really justified making the app that little bit shitter for everyone?

I could go on. I could go on about the chat bot that seemed incapable of answering simple questions (tens and tens of sessions built around authors plugging a book and yet the chat bot can’t answer where the on-site book store is). Or I could go on about the Live section defaulting to pulling in the badly formatted website, or that this content has no link to the schedule listings whatsoever (because that won’t be a useful feature at all…).

Does it matter?

A colleague I went with asked whether any of these things really matter. It’s only for a few days, and let’s be honest, a poor app experience doesn’t change the event overall. The city, the inspiration, the people, weather, BBQ, beer and bourbon is all pretty fantastic.

It’s also true that South by attracts a hugely diverse range of people with different interests and expectations. We chatted to several people in the same tracks as us (interactive) whose experience of the event was wildly different. Rather than talks and panels, they were there for social media outreach and being loved up by the content farms.

However, I think the app does matter. It speaks to an insidious product, design and technology trend: overreach. In trying to do everything the app does nothing well. In trying to satisfy everyone it pleases no-one. Is this really a template - or inspiration - for the future?

No.

At Made by Many we have some experience of building similar event based apps, like the one we built (and continues to be used) for the Cannes Lions festival of creativity.

We choose a very different path: a smaller set of rich features tailored to the specific environment of Cannes.

This mindset is reflected in the organisations that we’re working with to digitally transform themselves . It’s pragmatic. Narrow and focused has replaced broad and wide (with clearer business benefits).

This makes a lot of sense.

Stepping back, the most inspirational talk I saw in Austin this year involved an Apollo 15 astronaut and a Mercury/Gemini/Apollo flight director from NASA. It was an epic reminder of the past and a glint into the frontiers of space exploration.

It reminded me that the universe is full of delight. But, if you average it all out, the colour of the universe is actually an insipid all encompassing beige.

Digital products? We need to be the awe-inspiring galaxies in a million shards of colour and the shooting stars blazing a trail across the internet. Keep it weird, Austin!

Isaac Pinnock

Isaac Pinnock Founding Partner

Isaac is a founding member of Made by Many, where he employs his experience in rapid web prototyping, and in transforming a set of business requirements into a viable and desirable customer experience. Isaac is an interaction designer who understands how to develop a service idea and make it real.

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