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Opinion and Insight

SXSW From a Newbie

POSSIBLE's Limah Taeb reveals the standout experiences at this year's festival in Austin

SXSW From a Newbie

This was my first SXSW. New to the industry, I struck gold this year when I won my work’s lottery to attend (people, it is possible to win raffle prizes). There’s a lot to process from my amazing experience in Austin, so here we go.

The Sessions

There are too many to choose from. But, as a female creative and minority, I am naturally drawn to topics that revolve around design, diversity and inclusion. I found sessions like the Melinda Gates’ Keynote Speech empowering and rich with perspective. This particular panel comprised of four females from the West, who discussed inclusion and creating a better workplace for everyone. However, I did see the irony in a panel about diversity and inclusion, without a variety of gender and racial diversity represented. I won’t knock intelligent women holding a dialogue, but I hope next year similar sessions will represent a wider range of perspectives. 

Diversity in the workplace and in leadership is needed more than ever. I love how Leah Hacker and Olivia Hayes tackled this topic in their session “What User Experience Exposes About Your Culture.” When a company lacks diversity, it can negatively affect the end product. They presented compelling case studies, like Apple’s infamous HealthKit app that initially missed the mark on reproductive health tracking because a majority of the company comprised of Caucasian males. We need to ensure there are multiple perspectives represented at various levels in the workplace, so our designs are just as inclusive. 

There were so many other incredible sessions worth noting. Here are a few of my other favourites: 

● John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2018 

● Sophie Kleber’s Ethical Personality Design: The Future of HCI

Scaling Design Systems: Pixels to People

● David Aycan’s Leading for a Culture of Innovation & Creativity 

● David Chang and Scott Dadich in Conversation

The Brand Activations/Experiences

There’s theory, and then there’s practice. I found it equally important to explore and experience the very tech that was being discussed in sessions. I am not sure what Rainey Street looks like the rest of the year, but the turnover rate of pop up houses and interactive experiences was incredible. 

The Starz Sensory House experience was on point with their branding. Each room focused on a sense, with an experience related to each: the smell room led to free perfume samples, taste led to drinks and candy, the sound room had music to dance to, feel gave you a free t-shirt and manicures. They pampered the women, but they didn’t alienate the men. Even though I had never seen any of the network’s shows, I got a sense of all the characters.

People love free stuff, and SXSW had a lot to give away. I stood in line for the Snicker’s Social Eatery only to receive a small taco with a dash of sauce. Was it worth it? Nope. Why did I do it? The allure of what was inside - but moving on.

Shout out to the random experiences like VICELAND’s safe space to do yoga with baby goats in diapers. I learned people will eat goat cheese and then exercise that off with goats. I will admit it was sort of cute. 

I really enjoyed coming across innovative product ideas. Panasonic House showcased a variety of unique prototypes from entrepreneurs across Japan. These headphones, Wear Space, also close off peripheral vision to help one focus. A reflective material design, only noticeable upon flash photography, was embedded in the product as well as the dress on the mannequin. Very cool.

Then there were simply designed experiences that captured data, but were fun to partake in. Mercedes-Benz’s interactive survey started off by asking the participant what they wanted most out of a car. I picked efficiency and continued onwards, placing my string through my answer to each question. I loved the colours and transparency of other participants’ answer choices. 

The Future of Secrets was an experiential exhibit filled with confessions that were anonymously submitted. I approached the laptop and as I typed, the words were masked and a receipt with another secret spilled out as I hit enter. The code was projected on one wall, anonymous secrets were randomly projected on another, and there were headphones one could pick up and listen to the submissions. This Harvard study gives participants a glimpse into future sharing of intimate information and how it makes us feel. This experience took me through a range of emotions unlike the others, from laughter to feeling disturbed, to feeling sympathy. 

Then there was the Westworld experience, which was a phenomenal example of an activation successfully extending a storyline beyond the show. Waiting in line for standby tickets was absolutely worth it. For those unfamiliar with Westworld, it’s a television series about a Western-themed amusement park populated by AI bots. Fans were able to immerse themselves in the world they’d only seen on screen and expand their emotional connection to the place and characters.

It was so detailed and organised. The actors were in character even when left alone. Participants with standby tickets had personalised mail waiting at the post office upon arrival. This was an incredibly seamless experience - that must have been difficult and complicated to create and did not go unnoticed.

SXSW was beyond overwhelming as a new attendee, yet totally worth it. I left Austin inspired by everyone who travelled from around the world to share their research, perspectives, and creative undertakings. No matter what industry one works in, there is a constant need to learn and collaborate and what better way than to attend a conference/festival like SXSW. I will go again, if I am so lucky.

Limah Taeb is Associate Experience Designer at POSSIBLE

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