SXSW Interactive 2011 : The Recap

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It has been two weeks since the South By South West Interactive 2011 has ended and my thoughts on this years conference have finally finished brewing. As I have mentioned in the past, this is my sixth trip to Austin, Texas for this annual geek fest. I love it, but boy have some things changed.

The Trip

My friend Mike Rohde and I had a plan to drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Austin, Texas this year for the event. Unfortunately Mike got sick and decided it would be best to stay home this year (he is doing better now). I was still determined to drive, so I did, and it was actually nice… just me, the road, great music, and my thoughts. The route to Austin was divided into two days as well as the route home. Total mileage, roughly 2500 miles. It helped to have a new Ford Fusion Hybrid.

I completely agree with Jeffrey Zeldman on arriving a day early. The line for your badge was non-existent, the streets of Austin were sparse with people, and the venues were not jam packed. After driving roughly eight hours that day, this was a welcoming atmosphere. This is the way to go for future SXSW Interactive Conferences.

The “Official” Conference

When I was a SXSW newbie, I spent days strategically planning what sessions I wanted to go to, how much time I had between each one to traverse to the next and how quick I could eat lunch to get back to the convention center to absorb more. Over the years, I have learned this is the wrong way to experience SXSW, and my condolences to anyone trying to do that this year.

There were literally 40 to 50 sessions, panels, talks, and more scheduled every hour over the five days of the conference this year. Talk about information overload. Yes, they did have them loosely organized into specific tracks (ie. Design and Development, Business, etc..), but they also had them scattered across the city of Austin. I don’t remember any sessions being farther than the Hilton (which is right next to the Austin Convention Center) over the past years. There were scheduled shuttles that would take you miles out to a hotel for sessions. John Gruber talks about this issue and why it was a problem. While some great talks were being done in front of very few people on the outskirts of the conference, you had speakers who were not even showing up for their own session in the convention center(this happened to me for one of them).

Lines. Holy crap the lines. If anything were to dominate this years conference it would definitely be the lines. Yes, they have always been here, but this year seemed much worse. You wanted to go to that official party at 7:30 PM tonight? Well, its 5:30 PM, probably too late; the line is most likely 1,000 people deep already. I’m pretty sure the fact that SXSW Interactive attendance was up 36% had something to do with this. Roughly 5,000 more attendees than last year. This was also the case for sessions and panels around town and inside the convention center. You literally had to be there 30-45 minutes before the session started to even get inside the rooms.

Notable Session

Enough dirt on the conference, lets get to the good stuff. I made it to maybe ten sessions over the five days. I really enjoyed and was inspired by the following:

Lean UX: Getting out of the deliverables business by Jeff Gothelf

Jeff’s talk actually made sense to me. He wrote about this in Smashing Magazine right before SXSW(i found it after the talk), but the way he presented it was spot on. I currently do not do enough of what he talked about in the presentation and I want to implement parts of it into my own process. Jeff says, “Designers are used to being heroes. Lean UX is distinctly anti-hero.” In his article, Jeff mentions, “You are in the problem-solving business, and you don’t solve problems with design documentation. You solve them with elegant, efficient and sophisticated software.”

I suggest you check out his slides and read his article. It may not click with everyone, but I was inspired by it (thanks Jeff).

The “Unofficial” Conference

The best parts of SXSW Interactive 2011 happened outside of the official conference. It was great to catchup with old friends, hang out with new friends, and have a drink with some fellow Milwaukee creatives that made the trip down this year. Ginger Man seemed to be the go to place to chat and have a beer while staying away from the lines and huge crowds. It was great to chat with some well known web design and development folks there over some beers.

It is impossible to come to Austin without having BBQ, and that is not an issue with me… I love it. The two givens for BBQ in the downtown Austin area are Iron Works and Stubbs. A new place went up over the past eight months (I am told) called Blue Ribbon Barbecue(uh, its a flash site. should have talked to them while I was there!) and it is very good as well.

The 2nd annual Milwaukee Beer & Brat Bash took place at the Cedar Door on Monday this year and it was a blast. It was rough putting it together this year with the absence of Mike at the last minute, but the rest of the crew and I got it all set and it went very well. I’ve heard many great things from people who have attended. I appreciate Adam and Tarik from 88.9 Radio Milwaukee making two excellent audio pieces from the people who attended the Bash(one and two). Lets hope we can do another one next year!

March, 75 degrees, the sun is shining. Grab a coffee(preferably Patika.. best.. mocha…ever), find a table, and start talking to a complete stranger about the internet and what they may do on it. This is the best part of SXSW interactive. No badge required. Meeting people who share the same passion for building, breathing and browsing the web is why I attend this conference every year.

Final Thoughts

Will I be attending SXSW Interactive 2012? You bet. Will I be buying a badge? This… I am not sure of yet. I plan to try and get a few panels on the bill for next year, but I am not sold on actually having to attend the “official” conference. We’ll see what happens. Despite the over abundance of attendees, the long lines, the speakers missing in action for their sessions, and the shifting diverse backgrounds of the people that do attend; I still love it. I still suggest everyone involved in the interactive industry to at least experience the buzz around the town while the conference is going on… it really is magical. I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks…

4 Responses to “SXSW Interactive 2011 : The Recap”

  1. Elke

    Was awesome to hang out with you and glad I got to spend time with a SXSW pro. Really had a great time and looking forward to next year.

  2. Pete Prodoehl

    If you’re driving again next year, remind me to ask you about tagging along… If I can get those court orders cleared up, it might be worth it.

  3. tapps

    i, as well have been debating on getting a badge next year. the whole conference portion always leaves me unimpressed. the networking, the people, the energy.. all of these things can be achieved and utilized without a badge.

    great post

  4. Mike Rohde

    Thanks for the recap Brian.

    I really missed that road trip we had planned, but staying home to rest and recover from my illness was the right choice. I’m healing up well after resting up.

    It sounds like SXSW has grown as a conference beyond the control of the organizers, from what I read in your report and in various others’ reports. 20,000 attendees is quite the influx of people for this event.

    Another telling sign is that a subculture of attendees to Austin during SXW are not badge holders – coming only for the connections with others they know and not even bothering to attend panels.

    It seems to me that a few things need to change at SXSW to get things under control – like a cap on attendees and a cap on panels. While having such a variety of panels is great, I inevitably ran into overlaps where multiple panels I wanted to see were scheduled on top of each other.

    When I compare the sprawling nature of SXSW to say a single track event like An Event Apart or SEED, I feel more connection to the content and still enjoyed the networking and connections at those single track events.

    I do plan to attend SXSW in 2012, but like you, I’ll need to ponder whether a badge is needed or not. I suppose I may get one early and only use it as needed, since like you I’m not compelled to pack every panel I can into my stay in Austin.

    Thanks for the overview – I hope it’s a helpful resource to others considering the event next year.


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