SXSW 2007: The Panels

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

While some people seem to have been disappointed by this year’s panels at SXSWi (see those opinions here, there, and a followup here), I felt most of the panels/lectures I attended were excellent. Of course, with this much content, not all of the sessions are going to be winners, but from what I attended I thought only two of them were poorly done.

A few general notes about the conference:

  • Whenever I attended a session on the third floor I felt like I was being punished for something. That area was difficult to get to, the rooms were too small, and the wifi was terrible. If there’s not enough space for all the sessions in the main conference area, then it’s probably time to start holding Film and Interactive separately.

  • Panelists need to learn how to keep a tighter rein on audience questions. Many were self-serving and/or way too long.

  • I’m only so-so on the 25-minute “power” sessions. Of the ones I attended, most would have been better stretched out to an hour. They pretty much eliminate the possibility of questions, which (aside from the problem I mentioned before) are one of the best parts of SXSWi.

What follows is a list of the panels I attended, and some brief thoughts on each. I’ve linked to podcasts and other supporting material, where available. More of the rest should be available as podcasts at SXSW soon.

The Real Story Behind Snakes on a Plane

The panelists here had some good insight into what worked and what didn’t with the SoaP phenomenon. The moderator spent a little too much time showing videos, though.

How to Rawk SXSW - Listen

This was well done: Funny and informative. Tantek’s highly-stylized rawking cheatsheet was especially useful.

Writing, Better

Greg Storey and company did a good job of combining a presentation with a panel, with each person giving a separate presentation, but plenty of interaction among the panelists the entire time. Erin Kissane made an interesting suggestion: Write in email, because it’s simple and it will put you in that “conversational mode” of writing.

Greg promises more writing tips at their On Writing Better site soon.

After the Brief: A Field Guide to Design Inspiration - Listen

I think this presentation was geared more toward designing for yourself and less designing for clients than the audience expected. Still, lots of good tips for practicing creativity.

Web App Autopsy

I have to admit, I didn’t get much out of this panel. I got there late, the room was packed, and I couldn’t get online, even while the guy in front of me was smugly checking his email. So, I was a little distracted.

Stop Designing Products

Before this session started I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Mullenweg and talking about our favorite sections of I-35 to drive.

Peter Merholz gave a great presentation — funny and insightful. I liked what he had to say about deciding what the user experience should be and making that the “star to sail your ship by.”

When Your Partner Is Your Partner: When Home & Office Collide

This was one of the power sessions that could have benefited from being longer. Dori Smith and Tom Negrino did a fine job of talking about their experience, but more perspectives and time for questions would have improved the panel.

High Class and Low Class Web Design

Actually, I was only in this panel five minutes when I decided I really didn’t care about the topic. So I baled and went to…

From Tags to Riches: Life After Code

This was a good example of how to do a panel. Well moderated, with plenty of audience questions. The topic wasn’t particularly relevant to me — here at Smart Goat, employees can have pretty much any job/title they want — but it was interesting. It was also great to see Molly Holzschlag in person for the first time and get to meet her after the panel.

Using RSS for Marketing

This panel had a lot of good suggestions for using feeds to promote your business. Two particularly good points:

  • Go ahead and publish full feeds. The difference in click through rates versus partial feeds is marginal.

  • Start articles with your company name to differentiate your content in feed readers that display a “river of news.”

Design Workflows at Work: How Top Designers Work Their Magic

I’m sorry, but this panel was a mess. I have a lot of respect for all the designers, but the session was just poorly done. I think the problem was they had a presentation, but they never got around to it because they were too busy talking amongst themselves about how they work. Maybe they were trying to do something casual, but it felt very unfocused.

What made it worse was they started by putting a link on the screen to a Campfire room they created so people could chat during the session. As the panel went on, the chat room became a never-ending stream of complaints and heckles.

Keynote Conversation: Limor Fried / Phil Torrone - Listen

Good discussion about the DIY community. Best part: illegal demo of a cell phone jammer.

Deadlines, Clients and Cashflow: The Business Side of Web Design

A decent list of dos and don’ts for running a web design/development business.

I’m Good, Really!”: Self-Marketing for the Freelance Web Geek

I think the biggest lesson from this excellent panel was to narrow your focus. If you try to do too many things, you’ll have trouble getting known for any particular thing.

Also, props to Matt Haughey for being the lone voice of reclusiveness in a sea of networking.

Update: I’m catching up on feed reading and saw that this panel now has a wiki.

Ajax Kung Fu Meets Accessibility Feng Shui

Summary: Accessibility for web apps is hard. Progressive enhancement helps, but it’s not the solution. As long as screenreaders are behind the curve, it’s going to be painful.

Mobile Application Design Challenges and Tips

I intended to make it to more mobile web panels, but it just didn’t work out that way. Best moment: John Poisson of Radar — which he described as Twitter 2.0 — taking a question from Jack Dorsey, who introduced himself as being from “Twitter 1.0”.

Well, I thought it was funny.

Dan Rather Keynote Interview - Listen

I loved getting to hear Dan Rather speak in person, but this was a pretty lousy interview. For whatever reason, Dan was unable to hear the questions being asked by Jane Hamsher. The tension in the room was palpable — half the audience wanted to go up and fiddle with the soundboard while the other half wanted to go up and move her chair closer to his.

Rails and AJAX: Building Enterprise-Class Web Applications

This was another power session that could have easily been an hour. I so wish I had more time to play with this stuff. Their presentation can be downloaded as a PDF.

Javascript: The Big Divide

This presentation was pretty disappointing. Peter-Paul Koch has published a lot of useful information on JavaScript and CSS over the years, but he chose to speak about the divide between web developers and application developers. The problem, I thought, was that most of the audience didn’t fit the stereotypes he described. Maybe it was just a discussion whose time has passed.

Advergames: Making Your Brand More Fun

Angela & I sat in on this panel for a while before heading out to the evening events. They had some interesting stats on casual gaming.

Web Typography Sucks - Listen

This was probably my favorite panel of the entire conference. The presentation was well done and the information was practical and useful. I’ve been putting their suggestions to use as I redesign this site. I highly recommend listening to this one, and be sure to view the slides and other information they put up.

Design Aesthetic of the Indie Developer

Not much to say on this one. Good discussion by a group of developers I admire. I was just trying to soak it all in.

There’s no Such Thing as the Mobile Web (Or Is There?) - Listen

This one had a real problem with audience questions. All the questions were from people with products to promote.

$100 Internet Businesses

I don’t think this presentation got the respect it deserved. Sure, some of his ideas sounded slimy — niche AdSense sites, affiliate marketing — but they don’t have to be done in a slimy way. A lot of people walked out of that one, but I’m not sure if that was because they didn’t like his suggestions or because Opera was giving away a Wii at that time.

Can Social Networking Build Your Brand?

This was probably the best of the power sessions I attended. Jason Schwartz presented a case study of using social networks to promote a brand, along with lots of practical advice about how to do research and marketing on Web 2.0 sites. His presentation is also available online.

And that’s it! Next year, I’m only going to half as many sessions, so I won’t have so much to blog.