SXSW – It’s About Your Brain

SXSW is not for cowards. You must do your homework before you go or you will wander around the halls of the Austin Convention Center and have little to show for it.

Two talks I attended on Saturday at SXSW 2013 continued the theme of trying to make sense of all that has happened these past few years in digital. We are bombarded with information and dis-information every second of every day. It’s exhilarating but exhausting at the same time. Getting a handle on all this is something we all wrestle with.

The Laws of Subtraction: Rules to Innovate By – Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May, author, blogger and founder of Edit Information talked about my favorite property of mathematics; subtraction. I consider myself an intrapreneur inside my firm, That is someone who has entrepreneurship in their DNA but chooses to work inside a large company. We are the ones who want to move fast and in an iterative fashion and want to simplify the complicated world of corporate America. We are viewed as different and push others to operate on the edges.

Mr. May is all about elegant design and delivering only what is necessary, perhaps even only what is essential. People who live in this world are keenly observant and frequently students of history. We like to say the old days were simpler but I disagree. Each time is as complex as the one before and the one that will come next. This is why we need to study the past and integrate it into the present.

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom subtract things everyday.— Lao Tzu

May showed numerous examples of the simple. The arrow embedded in the FedEx logo, how comic book panels tell only part of the story, and some eye-mind tricks. He has boiled down his experience into Six Laws of Subtraction.

Laws of Subtraction

In many companies today there is a major piling on of ideas and insertions of rows in spreadsheets. When you ask people to solve a problem our minds immediately go to all the things that can be done or tried. This is the brainstorming period and is very useful but not efficient. From there it goes to what should or could be done. That’s prioritization. But we usually don’t subtract. Subtraction is scary because we are frightened that we might lose an idea. So instead we output a prioritized list, which is very, very long. This is not as helpful as it may seem. I’m going to publish his list to my staff on Monday.

Mr. May reminds us that our brains use different wires or pathways depending on whether we are adding or subtracting. He provides more support for how our minds can get caught up in irrational rituals and block out fresh thinking. This is why we need these reminders. The session description and link to Mr. May’s presentation can be found here.

The second talk addressed how our brain deals with creativity. We ply our cranium with large amounts external stimuli: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescriptions drugs, perhaps even illicit drugs. But we don’t spend much time on feeding it creativity.

Your Brain on Creativity – Denise Jacobs

Ms. Jacobs is a web designer and consultant who obviously lives in the C (creative ) world. She won my attention when she dismissed multi-tasking as something that is harmful, not helpful. She went so far as to say that multitasking is bad for creativity on a neurological level. Science! Only the very few can genuinely multitask. For the rest of us it’s called distraction. Single-tasking is the way to go to advance our ability to absorb, understand and create. Her slides traversed neurology, culture and relaxation techniques.

Relaxed Brain Waves

Something she said really struck me. “Creativity is an internal job.” Yes it is. We have a personal responsibility to nurture our own creativity. To consciously place our bodies and minds in the proper space, both physically and mentally. We need to work at this. It’s not always obvious, but it’s critical to our advancement on many levels. She made it clear that one needs to do this for business success and personal peace of mind. They are intertwined, not separate. The left and right sides of our brain are quite different. Balancing them is important for our well being, and particularly for our ability to be creative.

One of the unique benefits of SXSW is you can find yourself sitting in exactly the right place at the right time. Serendipity is one of the great inconspicuous benefits of attending  SXSW.

SXSW – Digital’s Dark Side

ATT8M0Y3UPDATE March 30, 2013 Video embedded below

On day two I entered a Hilton meeting room to listen to John Hagel‘s talk, Moving Story to Narrative. Mr. Hagel is Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, a practice that helps senior executives and brands better understand and benefit from emerging opportunities and new technologies. His distinguished career spans 30 years of experience as a consultant, author and founder of start-ups.

As mentioned in my first SXSW 2013 post, stories and storytelling were a consistent thread through lots of sessions. Mr. Hagel kind of turned it all upside down very quickly. His focus was on us, each of us as individuals who are living in the digital age, but specifically those of us who are also working in it daily.

What follows are my notes from his talk. I sprinkle my thoughts and observations inside of his, but the concepts belong to Mr. Hagel.

He got my attention right out of the gate when he rightly called out today’s “mounting performance pressure” environment. We are trying to do more and need to do it faster which causes us to re affix our gaze on the short term and think less about long term horizons. Corporate America is obsessed with the second to second stock price and very opportunistic based. The higher you are in the organization the shorter your time horizon tolerance is for measured improvement.

This is how I categorize senior executives thinking to help me understand their perspective.

  • The Chairman is looking to make the day
  • The President is looking to make the week
  • The CMO is looking to make the month
  • The Vice President is looking make the quarter
  • The Director is left with everything else

Mr. Hagel points out that we still have a finite set of resources and prioritization processes that mean we have to play a zero sum game. If my project gets assigned resources and yours doesn’t we have a winner and a loser. This causes us to look at shorter time horizons as oftentimes firms won’t even consider projects that are a year or more in length. Lean practices and iterative development are pointed to as models for how we should bring things to market. Shorter time frames and benefits that are realized much sooner.

He calls this the Dark Side of Digital. It’s a long term shift and it will stress us out. It’ not a fad or in our imagination, it is very real and it’s her to stay. Preparing for this new normal is important, but how do we prepare? The times we live in today converge and disrupt so quickly that we cannot predict what will be impacted downstream and to what degree. This uncertainly adds to the stress. This will not lead to good things.

Moving from the simple story with a beginning, middle and end to a narrative which is more open ended is what Mr. Hagel seems to be suggesting. Stories are about other things and other people, while a narrative is closer to the core of who we are. The things we think and do when no one else is around. He suggests we ask ourselves three questions.

  • Why are we here?
  • What can we accomplish while we’re here?
  • How do we connect with each other to accomplish something?

Put some real thought to these questions. The digital world allows us to discover, curate, connect and collaborate on a scale in an unprecedented manner. It’s the opposite of pressure; it’s opportunity. Answering these questions for yourself and your brand is critical for our digital and personal survival. It will cause us to contribute and participate in a process that unpacks knowledge over the course of time. He used Apple’s Think Different campaign to illustrate an important point. Think Different was in a way a slogan, and a slogan is not a narrative. But what it did do brilliantly, was to crystalize the narrative that Steve Jobs and Apple wanted to build for. The Think Different campaign did not show Apple products or talk about services. They showed icons that thought different. Don’t make it about your brand or leave it to your PR department to craft it.


Creating narratives in this way are very powerful ways to connect with consumers and draw them in. To allow them to, even if it is briefly, create their own narrative, which can nudge someone to trial or engagement. The Google search ads don’t talk about ad words or pay per click or SEO. They show how a father can record the un-reliveable moments of his daughter that can be shared at any time and reassures him that he will never lose those moments.

Small moves made smartly can set big things in motion — John Hagel

He talked about two kinds of narratives, opportunity-based narratives and threat-based narratives. Opportunity-based narratives allows us to magnify the reward side. What is it’s worth to us and our business? It breeds a positive mindset and is a magnet for collaboration. It’s much easier to take risks and invest in the long term. In contrast threat-based narratives makes us feel we are always under attack. Instead of coming together to create we do it for protection; to deal with that threat. We are trying to not lose something.

Narratives provide a form of stability. We have something to hold on to and they help us focus on what’s important. He encourages to make them explicit but explore many types of narratives and to be prepared to shift if necessary. Passion is also important. Be passionate. He stated that passionate workers tend to be twice as connected as those who are not passionate.

As he closed out his talk he mentioned zooming in and zooming out. Ideally we should think and act on two different narratives at the same time. Zooming in are the short term benefits and are probably more monetary based. Zooming out takes into account the longer time horizon and demonstrates how it can positively impact outcomes and people at scale.

A thoughtful, but perhaps cautionary talk.

Photo Credit: Jay Bryant of LiveWorld, Inc.

SXSW – Storytelling

SXSW LogoAustin welcomed the 20th SXSW Interactive event. That’s right twenty years. Despite the fact that digital moves at the speed of light, it has a way of creeping up on us. We’ve become so comfortable with it permeating nearly every corner of our lives we hardly notice when it does.

And so there I was in the midst of digital humanity. It’s kind of like being in a tsunami of content. Tens of thousands of smart (and quite polite) people from all over the world in one place sharing ideas, collaborating and connecting.

The question most asked of me was, “Why did you come here and what do you hope to get back for this large time commitment?” I found myself giving a different answer each time I was asked. Or maybe just identifying another layer of the onion which shaped my personal narrative of benefits. Here’s why I attend SXSW.

  • Quality session content presented by knowledgable and experienced professionals
  • Opportunity to see what’s coming next in the expansive exhibit hall
  • Hear directly from politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, icons and media mavens
  • Meet new potential vendors, agencies, partners and customers
  • Conduct business in the context of an innovative atmosphere
  • Reconnect with people from the past and meet your social friends IRL
  • Make cool new friends and followers
  • Network for future opportunities
  • Come back completely exhausted and fully energized

It’s hard to say exactly who should attend SXSW from your company. It’s not obvious what you are going to get out of it. One has to really spend some time thinking about what you’re seeing and experiencing. It has to be carefully observed, listened to and processed. Only then does your own personal narrative will emerge. My advice is send people who thrive in a crowded environment, are gifted observers, good note takers and have stamina to remain focused on about four hours of sleep a night.

There are hundreds of sessions so one must spend a good chunk of time preparing. Reading the titles gives you a window into what people deem important. The words “story or storytelling” appeared in 112 session titles! Why? My opinion is that we have been inventing, innovating, disrupting and layering so fast that we now need time to step back, take a breath and see if we can recognize what we have made. What does it mean? What do we see? Where do we go next?

Sometimes you can tell what’s going on by noticing what people are not talking about. This year there was a lot less hype around mobile, aside from the mobile focused sessions. The cry of “mobile first” has done its job. Message received. We have apps and mobile web and responsive design. Mobile is an “extension” of almost everything now, Our smartphones are a swiss army knife and that’s the problem. They are maddeningly distracting. Show-rooming gets a lot of notice, but shopping is a flow that is best not interrupted or you have an abandoned cart. We begin to shop and then there’s the call of Twitter or Facebook or Text that takes us off track. Solving this problem is what’s next for mobile. Delivery of relevant content that can garner the same interest as a text from a friend would be awesome. So much of what people are doing now on mobile are either payments or offers related. Of course we love Angry Birds, but it’s time now for mobile to get down to business.

The white space left by the volume on mobile being turned down this year has been filled with stories. I noticed a more than usual amount of personal life content in many of  the sessions. They delved into their past, even their childhood, to paint a personal narrative of what motivated them and what fuels their passion.

Here are my notes from the first day, Friday, March 8, 2013

Opening Remarks – Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis is co-founder of MakerBot, a 3-D printer manufacturer. He told his story showing photos of himself as an 8 year old interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. The narrative progressed to the early days of MakerBot and how the team worked almost around the clock to realize their dream. He is deeply passionate about building this printer to help people create and build.

Maker Bot opens the world of creation the way Dreamweaver opened the way to making web sites. — Bre Pettis

He launched in 2008, a web site that has thousands of templates and examples of things you can make with a MakerBot. Their biggest customer is NASA, who uses it to build prototypes, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each project. One of the best stories he shared was a about a the collaboration between two gentlemen who are using the MakerBot to build prototype hands for that will eventually become prosthetics for children who were born with no hands or fingers. He introduced a new product called The Digitizer. A small contraption that uses lasers to scan in an object and upload it directly to the MakerBot, eliminating the need to know CAD software to create the template. They have a store in New York where you can visit and have a likeness of yourself printed for free. Mr. Pettis was humble and inspiring. I want a MakerBot.

Tales of US Entrepreneurship Beyond Silicon Valley – Alexis Ohanian

Alexis OhanianThe Internet wants, needs to be kept as open as possible. As it has grown in influence and usage it was only a matter of time before politics and legislation would leave its mark. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist talked about the growing number of entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley. Small towns using the Internet to start businesses and people connecting online then moving to the physical world to manifest their ideas. He chartered an across the country bus trip and documented these travels in a film. Proof that the Internet of things is the Internet of things. Mr. Ohanian is concerned about the encroachment of regulation on digital assets. He feels that your digital footprint should be protected with the same vigor as all other personal content. Through due process, court orders an search warrants. Not a broad shut down policy or request to get at the information.

Technology, Imagination and Exponential Thinking – Jason Silva

Jason Silva is a futurist, filmmaker and epiphany addict. That’s how he describes himself. I would not disagree, but would add that he is also a 5 hour energy drink. He did not hold still for even a millisecond onstage. You got the feeling that he is a perpetual steeping pot ready to go off any second. His talk spanned just about everything related to the web, human nature, physics, the future. You name it and he talked about it. He was the perfect end of day speaker, raising the energy bar and sending everyone off on a high. I won’t even try to describe what he does. The only way to understand is to watch.


Jason Silva
Me with Jason Silva

So many of the speakers are approachable and happy to talk along the way. I ran into Jason the following day in one of the lounges and he took the time to connect and engage. Not promote himself, but talk and ask me what I thought. This kind of interaction opportunity is rare. Another benefit of SXSW.

There you have my snapshot of day one! More to come.

SxSW Interactive Festival 2010

It’s been a week since I returned from SxSW. Just about the right amount of time for my thoughts on the experience to gel. This was my first SxSW festival and so I don’t have any other personal data points, but I’m a veteran of conferences, seminars, forums, you name it, for more years than I care to detail. SxSW has a reputation for music and film. When I would mention to co-workers that I was attending they all thought I was going for music. But of course my interest is on interactive. The festival organizers reported this was the first year interactive attendees eclipsed music registrants. 12,000 paid to get into the interactive track, a 40% increase. Needless to say my expectations for SxSW were quite high as I touched down in Austin.

What I liked about SxSW

  • Meeting and being around smart, energetic, creative people from all over the world. It turned out that the people you met outside the events was the most valuable part and is what makes the festival stand out.
  • The scale of SxSW means you have great networking opportunities. I was able to make some very interesting connections and reconnections. Got to catch-up with old friends, turned some Twitter-acquired relationships into real world friends, and had a couple of promising business development meetings. Also met some Social Media celebrities.
  • The venue. Austin is a great place to hold SxSW. Fantastic weather, terrific citizens and delicious food. Oh yeah, gotta love the bike cabs.
  • Thoughtful keynotes by some heavy hitters who freely shared their ideas and inspired the crowd.
  • A wide variety of event formats. Panels, solo presentations and workshops allowed you to experience the content the way it made sense to you.
  • The battle between the location-aware services, Foursquare and the local favorite Gowalla. I’m a Foursquare user and unscientific research at the festival tells me it’s leading, but Gowalla is a close second. Sorry Loopt, you’re not even in the game right now. SxSW is probably the only opportunity, for a while, that will award you a Super Swarm badge for checking-in with at least 250 people. “Nailed it.”

My frustrations about SxSW

  • Too many things going on at the same time.
  • Event titles were vague, couldn’t easily determine themes or content value.
  • Had to dig to see who were on the panels or giving presentations.
  • Many events, especially the panels were beginner level.
  • They weren’t prepared for the higher volumes. Long lines everywhere. When you really wanted to attend a session you had to get there early or risk being shut out. That meant you had to miss something else while listening to the AV guys say, check, check, check.
  • Not enough practical ideas or advice that you could use immediately.
  • Last minute additions that were easily missed. I didn’t know Clay Shirky was on a panel until I saw the live Twitter stream from the actual session. Yes it was mostly my fault, but come on guys.
  • The most compelling keynotes or events were spread out over several days (business people can’t be out that long).
Mood Board Created During Ms. Boyd's Keynote Speech on Saturday (Click to enlarge)

In short, it’s time for SxSW to raise the bar. I would say only 10% of the scheduled events I attended were valuable. I know it’s tough to shape content for such a diverse group, but they may be underestimating the wisdom of the crowd. Don’t talk down. Time to make the badge people reach for the new ideas and strategies. Bring on new topics and voices, add projects and case studies, cut the number of sessions and raise the price of admission. It’s a festival, and they do a great job at keeping that sentiment, but there has got to be a way to bridge the festival with the formal in a manner that doesn’t kill the fun and excitement that is SxSW.

My photostream from the festival is on flickr here. Please contribute your thoughts on SxSW here.

Mobile = Shift For Designers and Consumers

Humans have always been obsessed with what they need to “take along” whether it’s going to work or play. The advances of mobile phones and apps has led many of us to shift activities we once did exclusively on a desktop/laptop to our smartphone. This is naturally followed by an increase in the number of places we carry out basic computing tasks; now in the car, at a restaurant, waiting for a flight, watching a child’s sporting event, etc. It’s growing quickly partly because people are relieved of trying to remember what they need to bring with. As long as you have your smartphone (Swiss army knife) you feel better prepared. I have been reading, debating and thinking deeply about mobile these last few months.

I attended two mobile sessions at the recent South by Southwest Interactive track (SxSW) in Austin. The first was entitled The UX of Mobile, with Barbara Ballard of Little Springs Design, Scott Jenson from Google, and Kyle Outlaw of Razorfish. I’ll cover the second panel called Time+Social+Location with Naveen Selvadurai from foursquare, Josh Babetski from MapQuest  and Greg Cypes from AIM in a later post.

This post mashes together notes from those panel sessions with what’s been brewing inside my brain and recorded in my Moleskine since last fall. It all runs together which makes it hard on the attribution front. The shape of my thoughts was obviously influenced by what’s out on the web and what was shared at SxSW. Thank you to all mobile thinkers.

In The UX of Mobile, the moderator kicked it off by asking each panelist to define user experience:

  • Allow users to reach goals
  • Think about the whole system, SMS
  • It’s everything that causes a user to not want to use your product; scrolling, buttons, etc.

Mobile today is hyper-focused on apps because the mobile browser is lacking (and because of Apple). When the mobile browser catches up to the app experience, there will be a monumental shift away from apps. The mobile web will be where things will get interesting and play out. But simply trying to put the web onto the phone (miniaturization) is not where the value lies. Mobile screens are a new window into the Internet. It’s the closest thing we have right now to wearable computing and so designs needs to account for mobility as well as personal connection. Design for interoperability, take advantage of mobile cache and leverage the cloud. One should design for the “mobile moment.”

  • Design knowing that interruptions are inevitable (the waiter comes to take your order)
  • A phone in your pocket can also be useful (vibrate to signal when you need to turn right or left)
  • Don’t bring the web to the mobile phone, bring the browser (Safari with iPhone/iPad, Chrome)

Mobile demands that you design for the screen. A smartphone has many more features available to the user than a desktop. Barbara Ballard ticked off a great list of things to be considered when designing for the mobile experience. Notations after → are my additions.

  • Gestures   Human
  • Accelerometer  →  Framing
  • Bluetooth  →  Extension
  • Camera  →  Pictures
  • Microphone  →  Voice
  • Location  →  Mapping
  • Address Book   →  Social
  • Calendar  →  Schedule

The mobile phones of today are closer to traveling ecosystems than operating systems. As such, usability testing for the small screen becomes more critical than browser designs. Designers/developers need to test in context, including social context; in short the real world. For me real world testing will mean getting out of the lab and test in cars, libraries, retail stores, restaurants, sporting venues etc. Internet connections are fairly reliable now; always on and fast. The cell phone carriers are not there yet. It’s better than the 9600 baud days, but not yet comparable to the speed we enjoy with today’s modems. When 4G arrives, we will be a heartbeat away from moving everything the mobile device. That will be a watershed moment.

The iPad is a Roaming Device, Not a Mobile Device

Pick up the April 2010 Wired magazine (I’d include a link but the paper version gets to me before the digital version; go figure) and turn to page 75. There’s an extremely insightful article by Steven Levy, Why the New Generation of Table Computers Changes Everything. In it he talks about how Steve Jobs is “writing the obituary for the computing paradigm” and how desktops will vanish and laptops will be used “primarily as base stations for syncing our iPads.”  While at SxSW I spent a lot of time with Ian Magnini, principle at MCD Partners in New York. We work closely on strategy, design and visioncasting. He turned to me and said.

The iPad will replace the magazine rack in your home. There will  be one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom – Ian Magnani

I think he’s dead on. The iPad has a huge mobile drawback in that it can’t fit in your pocket or purse. So maybe it’s not cell phone mobile, but it could be the perfect “roaming device.” I can picture people using the iPad to read magazines, newspapers, books, then launch the browser to order groceries or do online banking all while sitting in a comfy Barcolounger. Battery life is 10 hours and taps return instantaneous responses. Keypad will be the big challenge.

As always, Jobs will ensure that the design experience will be outstanding. I have heard that there won’t be a calculator on the iPad at launch because he didn’t like the experience. It doesn’t matter. Once it’s right, it will be included in a future version.

Much more to come on Mobile.

SxSW 2010 Kicks-off

Austin International Airport

Just arrived at South by Southwest 2010 in Austin. An amazing collection of people from all over the world. Right now I was sitting at a table with a special effects producer that did the visual design for the feature film Book of Eli. He lives in Los Angeles. Across from him is a gentleman who runs a family fund worth $6Bn that looks for companies that are underfunded and underdeveloped and tries to bundle them together to make a bigger opportunity for them. He is from Melbourne, Australia. We had a great discussion ranging from mobile and philanthropy to how film studios gain rebates from state governments by filming on their turf.

From there I caught a quick spontaneous meeting with Dennis Crowley, Co-founder and CEO of Foursquare. He was with Naveen Selvadurai, Co-founder, and developer of the iPhone app for Foursquare. Discussed opportunities for offers from merchants and where mobile and app advertising might be going.  All company business cards have a badge printed on the back. If you collect the cards from 6 Foursquare employees, arrange them to match the badge page on the application, take a photo and get it to Foursquare, you’re rewarded with a special, secret badge. I got 2 so far.

Oh yes. Also got some inside information on how they determine who gets to be mayor.