SXSWi

Hardware's Next Little Things by Dan Weingrod

http://www.flickr.com/photos/aussiegall/ It seems that we’ve finally passed the point of expecting some sort of big breakout hit to come out of SXSWi.  With its size and scope most of the concern of attendees was focused on dealing with the usual long lines for highly featured speakers and panels, snagging the invites for secret parties or waiting on even longer lines for the sponsored ones.  On top of this, its become clear that with no-one wanting to try anything remotely daring outside of SXSW approved events, ((homeless hotspots anyone? (and by the way it looks like they worked)), we’re left with the organizers to try and create the foundation or groundwork from which we might find the next big, or little, thing.

The problem with this of course, is that much of the programming for SXSW was sealed pretty much six months ahead of the festival, which means that the “latest and greatest” breakout hit may already have happened. This pretty much seemed to be the case looking at the lineup of keynote speakers: Bre Pettis from MakerBot, Elon Musk, Tina Rosenberg and  Julia Uhrman of OUYA. What did all of these speakers have in common? At the core of their offering and interest is the strong theme of creating physical products in a digital age. Nowhere among these high profile speakers was a new killer mobile app or a hot new social network. In fact there wasn’t really much “New”. Pettis and Musk did manage to inject some serious new into their presentations. Pettis by announcing MakerBot’s new prototype 3D scanner and Musk by showing off this amazing freshly minted, video of a reusable SpaceX rocket practicing a short take-off and landing. But without the pull of a breakout hit it seemed to me that a theme of physical applications to digital technologies had become at least a major thread this year.  Here’s a few of the strings:

Big Sensor

It started for me in a Friday Healthcare App session with a questioner who asked about how the presenters were planning to take “Big Sensor” into account.  Big Sensor? I’d been hearing plenty about Big Data, but this was the first I heard about defining a more specific subset of it as the massive and rapidly growing amount of sensor data available. In the new world of the quantified self where we, and perhaps our doctors, are all tracking our own information, sensors from fit-bits to blood meters to some scary workplace motion tracking sensors are becoming the physical appendages of data networks. Their growing use is creating a deeper need for developing a more designed approach that can integrate how we use sensor data, how we control it and how we can take advantage of it while retaining privacy and humanity.

Crowdsourced Cars

The day following Elon Musk’s presentation I went to a far more sparsely attended session that took Musk’s approach to physical production and turned it on its head. Local Motors is a company I had heard about before from via Neil Perkin, who has championed its crowdsourced approach to automobile production.  What’s impressive about Local Motors is their ability to leverage a worldwide network of enthusiasts, experts and professionals, connected by software, to design, develop, build and constantly improve a complex physical product i.e. an automobile. While their Rally Fighter is in production and street legal in the US, they are also developing a limited edition pizza delivery vehicle for Domino’s pizza and natural gas powered concept cars for Shell. But the most impressive part of their story was how they worked with DARPA to concept a vehicle for specific requirements in Afghanistan. The result, the XC2V went from concept to delivery in 14 weeks an amazingly short period of time for vehicle, or any sort of, government procurement project.

Listening to the Local Motors story it became clear theirs is a case of hardware learning from software. By using the distributed model of design they are able to use over 35,000 employees, by adapting Agile and Lean approaches of startups to their, related, Toyota Production System they are able to produce limited editions of automobiles, that are limited for the purposes of continuous improvement.  The approach is to build 1,000 vehicles and then pause and optimize instead of the expense and hassle of the traditional mass model. All of this goes to the way that hardware is rapidly becoming more customized and customizable to a defined user experience. We’ve all gotten used to software that can be tweaked and refined to our specific needs, hardware is now rapidly approaching these same capabilities.

Leap Motion

Leap Motion wasn’t new to me, but it rapidly became one of the smaller scale breakouts of the show, even though its product had been announced and on pre-order since at least December.  The biggest reason for this lies in one of the critical differences between physical and digital adoption, hands on experience. Leap had set up a tent for attendees to sample the controller and the lines outside the tent, along with a presentation by its founders, created a strong word of mouth buzz around the product.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew_8Uj5RnXs

What the Leap controller represents is another step in the growing world of gestural interfaces. Kinect got this off and running, but Leap takes it a number of steps forward especially when you consider its price, small form factor and ability to connect with multiple systems. What Leap also brings is a new relationship between physical and digital and the promise to interface with them in the same way. It also begins to ask serious questions about our basic device controllers such as buttons, keyboards and menus, but ultimately it starts blending the gap between physical and digital in ways that I am looking forward to imagining.

There were more examples of the deeper blending of the physical and into the digital landscapes, most notably full scale replica of NASA’s James Webb telescope, but one of my favorites brought it back to how marketing might start to use this combination in a far more interesting way than QR codes. During their presentation called Art Copy & Code, Google demonstrated some interesting and whimsical directions for marketers that start blending digital and physical to create more personal communications experiences. My favorite was this version of an arduino enabled basketball shoe that talked trash to its owner:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=VcaSwxbRkcE

A funny, and admittedly very early, attempt at bringing advertisers into the new environment connecting digital and physical. But when you consider how hardware is making so many small, innovative advances on so many fronts its hard to imagine that we won't wake up soon to a new normal where connected communications is part of the physical world all around us.

When Software Companies Think Like Agencies by Dan Weingrod

FOTD-schematic-e1301416963585.png

One of the best parts of the Lean Startup sessions at SXSWi this year was not just the presence of the Lean All Stars, (Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank), but also how true the sessions were to the tenets of Lean by presenting real case studies and prototype discussions. This ranged from very specific examples to expert panels and even to a King of the Apps showdown, (complete with crown and robe), focused on going beyond ethereal process discussion to real issues of failure, pivot, learning, iteration and success. The best of these case studies was Manuel Rosso’s “Concierge MVP” presentation, because it made me realize that for all the talk in the Ad world about agencies needing to think like software companies, software companies have grabbed this bull by the horns and are already thinking like agencies. Rosso is the founder of a web site called foodonthetable.com. Hs case study was about was his team’s unique approach to customer development and creation of an MVP.  An MVP, before you think this is a sports column, is a “minimum viable product”, or a product with the smallest feature set that will appeal to customers. What was unique about Rosso’s approach was how they achieved the MVP quickly, effectively without spending money on additional resource and by essentially using a variant of research techniques that agencies have been using for years.

Foodonthetable’s essential proposition is that weekly meal planning is difficult, time consuming and costly and that their target audience, Moms, needed a simple effective way to approach it. Their idea? Create a website that maps sale items at local supermarkets to a customer’s food preferences, relate these to a set of tested recipes and create a healthy meal plan and shopping list. In the digital world this value proposition might be the time to start coding a prototype. In the agency world we’d likely take this idea, do some broad market research and put it all in a brief to hand off to a creative team.  What Rosso and his team did was to start with one customer and with this:

They found a Mom in their target group who they thought would be interested and sat down with her in a Starbucks across the street from her local supermarket. Together they stepped through the above page and input information about where she shopped, what her food preferences were, how much she wanted to spend and other information. They had in hand the supermarket’s weekly sale circular and used their laptops to look up recipes online and a printer to print out the shopping list.  Everything was done by hand, no code was involved, no logos were created, (note the “Food Site” logo in the upper left corner), and no tag lines or copy written. Based on the scrawled writing on the form it’s also clear that there was plenty of room for improvisation and change based on actual customer feedback and physical realities. Do we need photos of the food? Let’s write that in for now. Should we add date and time? We can scrawl that in over here.

As time went by the form was adjusted based on customer feedback and actual experience until they added a second customer. The second customer added more variety to the feedback loop, but they continued to use this analog “concierge” approach to define and build a product through actual, real world, experience. Only when they got to the third or fourth customer, and an additional supermarket, did they realize they actually needed put something into code. In this case it became clear that having a database of local supermarket sales and specials would actually save them time over the analogue process of eyeballing weekly circulars in order to build menus.

The result was that after an eight week process Rosso and his team were ready to actually begin the process of coding and automating the processes that led to the finished site. The site itself is rapidly growing across the nation and features a home page one of the best examples of a clear, “why you should sign up” value proposition I’ve ever seen.

When progressive agencies and marketers think about integrating with “digital” or “technology” we often consider the benefits of using technology related processes already ingrained in tech companies. What the foodonthetable.com experience reveals is that we already have many of the right processes and thinking, it’s just that software companies just might be doing a better job of using them. As an ex-CPG marketer Rosso understood the value of consumer research, but he also knew that doing it in the traditional manner would take too long, be too costly and would not deliver the necessary opportunities to test and iterate. What he did understand, and what is at the core of customer development, was that the only way to succeed was for him to get out of the office, listen to customers and create a product based on small, fast iterations and feedback loops. And if it didn’t need to be polished or coded, so much the better.

Agencies have all the tools to implement these approaches, but our culture and traditions don’t seem to allow it. We listen to customers in focus groups instead of individually, we go through long, torturous research on customer needs and profiles without actually talking to customers. Worst of all, we then take our valuable research and present clients with a “finished” recommendation that calls for costly investments that offer no opportunity to revert or iterate. We might consider paying attention to the fact that software companies are using the tools that we’re traditionally expert at to make small bets, fail more quickly, spend less money, but ultimately end up with better results. Instead of worrying about how agencies need to think like software companies maybe we should think about how software companies can teach us to make better use of our own tools.

 

SXSWi - The Awesome and the Meh-some by Dan Weingrod

I’ve been late in getting my initial thoughts from SXSWi out. It’s been a combination of overload at the office and a bad stomach bug that kept me grounded for a couple of days, (nothing to due with ribs and beer). So, slightly delayed, here’s my first quick, somewhat random and very much personal take on what worked and what didn’t.

The Awesome

Does the Future Include Synthetic Life? Utterly humbling. Craig Venter, the man who led the drive to map the human genome described how his team has been able to create synthetic life by essentially treating DNA as software, reprogramming it, introducing it into cells and creating the first synthetic life . What was particularly striking to me was that their process really had to combine very deep science with very high art. The science is in the massive computational power is needed to program the new DNA "software", but the art is in their ability to mix new and old DNA together in the cell in a sort of messy, controlled serendipity. Or at least that's how I understood it. That along with the fact that the DNA code they produces included a URL and quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynmann was simply a staggering and frankly uplifting display of technology. It made me feel very small, thrilled and a bit scared all at once.

The Lean Startup - This set of all day sessions was held in the clean, corporate ascetic confines of the AT&T Center nearly 2 miles away from the hubbub of the Convention Center, but were in many ways the most intensely relevant of my entire visit. The basic idea of Lean takes agile development processes and grafts onto them the concept of customer development, (or customer understanding), to create products that customers want in a highly efficient, creative and successful process. That’s a very thin explanation, but it’s something that anyone working in interactive media of any sort needs to be paying attention to. After all, wouldn’t we all like to know how to make a digital product faster, cheaper and most importantly, more delightful for our customers and us?

So where was the awesome? First of all in the presence of the all stars from the Lean movement: Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank who all gave brilliant, inspirational presentations that went beyond what I had already seen on Slideshare and random videos. More importantly a solid supporting cast of panelists including startups, developers and UX experts went through real world results that covered not only how they succeeded, but also how and where they failed, pivoted, learned and moved on. This is what set these sessions apart from many others at SXSWi. Where many focused on positive demonstration and great results, not necessarily a bad thing, the Lean panels talked more about building the roots of success by moving quickly and positively past mistakes. Seeing real demonstrations of Lean in action from groups as varied as Pivotal Labs and startups like Food on the Table, (more on this soon), was downright inspiring and contagiously exciting.

The Last of the Launch and Leave 'ems

I learned last year to be careful about panels. When they work they can be great and when the don’t, (see below), they are an embarassement for all. I went to the launch ‘em and leave ‘em panel partially to finally meet @anjali28, the session’s moderator, but to also get a better sense of the thinking around sustainable Web products. Do we create Web sites or online products as short one-time campaigns? Do we sustain them through social media? and whose job is it to do that?

What worked here? Unlike others the panel really got to the heart of the matter quickly, through some well positioned intro slides by Mel Exon, (Update: you can find 'em here: bit.ly/gd7rVh), declaring that “agencies should show some respect and get out of the way” and Conrad Lisco maintaining that agencies have a role especially in amplifying the conversation between paid, owned and earned media.But the most refreshing part of the discussion came from, of all things, the client representative, Peter Parkes of Skype. Throughout the panel Parkes doled out equal, targeted praise and withering criticism at the agency side and client side alike. His candor with statements such as “Agencies say they can't sell in smart stuff, but why do we see so much crap online” and “Agencies have this bizarre fear of being the same” left many of us marketers in the room enlightened, but also wondering if we were on the wrong side of the table.

The Meh-Some

There’s always one panel that makes you swear you’ll never, ever go to a panel again. I should have known I was in trouble when the walk-in slide for this panel included the USA network logo and their tagline. The participants included a representative from Oxygen Network and a group from the USA show Psych, including the show’s star Dule Hill. The problem was, that all they really wanted to talk about was all the good things they were doing using social media to connect their fans to the show. Yes, there were a few of the expected nuggets about increased user engagement and recall, but overall this was just self congratulatory pablum. No real examples, no learning, no failures and pivots. The only bright spot was Dule Hill, who had only recently started tweeting. His newbie reflections on social media, “Now I know what you mean by the second screen”, were honest and on target. For the rest of us it was a waste of time that could have been better used elsewhere.

The other disappointment this year was the size and scale of the event. Last year, my first year at SXSWi, had 11,000 registrations and even then I was hearing complaints about how big things had gotten. This year the number was up to 20,000 and I was hearing the complaints from new and experienced visitors. The biggest impact of this new scale was the creation of 3 separate session tracks, (Journalism, Social Graph and Lean), located far enough away from the Austin Convention Center that it would be impossible to get from one location to another to see consecutive sessions. I wrote about this here and it pretty much came true. For me, this meant a lot more thinking, planning, tough decisions and ultimately missing out on panels I wanted to see as well as the serendipity of walking in on panels I knew nothing about.

Along with this change in scale, there seems to have been a change in participants. In one panel the audience was polled as to who was on their first visit. The vast majority of hands went up. When they were polled as to how many were in marketing the same vast majority of hands showed. An unscientific poll for sure, but it made me wonder if this year has really marked the triumph of marketers over the revenge of the nerds. It’s likely been coming for a long time, but if its true it does change the alignment of things. Its likely to be more and more about networking and more about networking within like minded industries. The promise I’ve always seen for SXSWi is that its one of the only places where people across multiple disciplines can really meet across common themes. The creation of the separate tracks and an overwhelming population of marketers could ruin that promise.

SXSW Day Three by Dan Weingrod

Sunday at SXSW started quietly. Most likely because of the massive amount of sponsored parties that went on late into Saturday night. Sessions were also relatively sedate for me. Unfortunately missed perhaps the best session of the day from Clay Shirky, but I followed the tweets from the session I was in and remarkably was able to converse semi-intelligently about it with someone who had actually been to the session. Something to say about tweets and I'll have more to say about Shirky and the role of agencies later. Three of the sessions I did make presented some interesting and new ideas in the arena of gaming and Apps, which somehow seem to be related. A panel discussion around social gaming interested me because of the role that games and game structure plays in social media apps such as FourSquare and GoWalla, as well as Facebook. In fact, one of the sessions that Jen Vallez, one of Cronin's Web designers, attended discussed how game-like features can make a difference in the first moments of Web engagement. An interesting perspective.

An session covering Apps and brands included some solid commentary and analysis from three experienced designers and strategists in this sphere which seems to combine gaming and social media. The one major consensus that I took away from this session was that Apps must have some level of utility for their participants in order to succeed. The apps that simply recreate a micro-site or a brand experience will simply not gain traction.

The most entertaining session of the day was Dan Ariely of Duke talking about behavioral economics and decision making. I had heard some of this before on his appearances on Marketplace Radio. In the context of SXSW, Arieli made some great points about how people will generally settle for the "default" option when they have a complex range of choices available. Something for us all to think about when we want our users to take a favorable action. Arieli presented this with great and humorous examples. Maybe economics isn't the dismal science.

SXSW Day Two- Social Media Universe by Dan Weingrod

The SXSW sessions I attended yesterday presented an undercurrent of discussion around evolving issues of privacy and identity. Today's sessions continued and grew on that theme, but focused more on the broad overarching potential of social media. In a session called Activity Strea.ms Chris Messina presented a clear and well thought out presentation that talked to social media's potential by placing it within the context of activity theory. The basic idea of activity theory, as far as I could tell, was that individuals act within the context of a community and communities interact with and affect individuals. If we see social media as the actions of individuals within a Web community then we are at the cusp of an opportunity to view the growth and definition of a whole new set of interactions. If we believe that Social Media will continue to grow then we will need a new structure and framework to understand it. A structure that cannot be defined within the classic computer model of folders and documents.

Messina is working with a group to help create this structure within what they call Activity Strea.ms, which will allow for much more flexible and intuitive control and distribution of information. Considering the amount of data and information that individuals are producing, and how much it will grow in the future, activity streams may be a way to harness this data into communication that benefits and empowers individuals and communities. The hardest trick in all of this is understanding how "game" based Social Media applications such as FourSquare and GoWalla are actually the first halting steps in developing rules and structure for how individuals interact within these communities.

In a return to the the recurring theme of the conference, Danah Boyd, one of the foremost authorities on social media and youth discussed the role of privacy and publicity in social media. This presentation made it clear that while social media may have immense potential within within new and growing interactive communities, the issues of privacy will need to be solved before we can move forward. This issue is one that developers, entrepreneurs and marketers will have to continue to be aware of and one that may change and morph as time goes on.