SXSW-2015A year doesn’t pass without someone asking me: Is South By SouthWest (SXSW) really worth it?

After five years of SXSW Interactive, my team and I still maintain that it is. While Interactive started as the place we went to glimpse the near and not-so-near future, to expand our thinking, and to consider the possibilities ahead, it has also become the place to get hands-on with the here and now. It is impossible to leave SXSW without being excited, hopeful, and perhaps just a little bit terrified (isn’t the unknown always a bit scary?).

The trends I observed this year included big and little data (predictive analysis, a general push toward data driven decisions and actions), biotech, bio “hacking,” and synthetic biology, our connected self (pulling all of the data about us together for our own use, especially as related to health), the intersection of fashion and technology, how to inspire innovation, how to design products and interfaces, and, generally, a trend toward an increased number of hands-on, rubber meets the road, skills-focused sessions (Google Analytics, UX methods, etc.).

We were all delighted to hear about new organizations and to see the presence of organizations we know: Springer, Macmillan New Ventures, the IEEE, and the American Heart Association, to name a few.

In the spirit of “Ask The Chefs,” I asked the team: What did you consider the highlight of SXSW 2015? 

Lori Carlin: At first, I was sure the highlight of the conference for me would be related to the use of big data, or the notion that the body is the new technological frontier to be cracked and connected, or the proliferation of wearables and the potential to harness wearables data to shift medicine from disease diagnosis and management to keeping patients healthy. Or perhaps it would be the ability to “hack the brain” in ways considered as science fiction just a couple of decades ago, as we watched postage stamp sized sensors on the brain allow paraplegics to move artificial limbs with their minds.

But I kept coming back to a session entitled How Innovation Happens where a quick talking, yet soft spoken Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, joined by Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman, and Walter Isaacson, captured the attention of the 5,000 seat auditorium with talk of the “TQ” (technical quotient or technical intelligence). Smith discussed how the TQ had been missing from the U.S. government’s conversation to advance innovation and that she was attempting to bring technical expertise to the table when policy was discussed and decisions were made. The speakers quoted alarming statistics on the lack of diversity in the technology sector, the lack of female role models in technical positions, and the notion of unconscious biases that perpetuate the status quo. Smith matter-of-factly held that none of the biases causing the current lack of diversity are “anybody’s fault.” These biases are unconscious, but we must make a conscious effort to change them. Keep that in mind as you ponder – where will your organization’s next new idea come from? Are there voices we aren’t hearing?

(On a separate note, see how Eric Schmidt’s behavior toward Megan Smith became a case study in unconscious bias.)

Mark Jacobson: It’s really hard to pick one highlight but I guess I’d have to say Extreme Bionics: The End of Disability a keynote by Hugh Herr. Herr heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab. In 2011, TIME magazine coined him the “Leader of the Bionic Age” because of his revolutionary work in the field. He’s a double amputee himself and was an awesome and inspiring speaker. He has been an avid rock climber since before losing legs and with technology he helped develop he has since ascended higher mountains than he did before! The vision he painted of a near future where disabilities are eliminated was astonishing and is clearly within our reach.

Michael Sherlock: STM publishers have the opportunity to start enhancing static content by introducing interactivity. The tools and techniques to facilitate effective two-way exchange of information with users (through choices and selections, for example) in order to present content in context are getting more sophisticated. We can deliver exactly the information the end user needs in the desired form factor (online, mobile device) to fulfill a specific purpose. We’re watching other types of publishers such as news sites and consumer-oriented magazines and apps break the new ground and expand the boundaries of practical solutions. It’s easy to see examples of very compelling user experiences.

STM publishers can decide to incorporate elements of interactivity where it makes sense. It isn’t intended to replace what we currently do, but continue to augment the information.

There are implications for workflow processes: The traditional sequential workflow used to deliver static content won’t work. Interactive content needs to be planned and executed by collaborative teams of writers, editors, designers, and technical specialists.

But wait….there’s more!

Since it’s so difficult to pick just one thing to highlight, we all summarized a couple of the noteworthy sessions we attended as well.

Connected Health: Being Social Helps Your Heart: Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association talked to a packed room about aligning the objectives of healthcare professionals and patients, leveraging social connections, and connecting the data that Americans are currently collecting themselves. She advocated consumer driven connected health, connecting the individual (collecting data) with the healthcare provider (administering care and consultation) and research (analyzing collected data and aiding in its translation to practice and, ultimately, behavior).

Being Flawsome: 5 Digital Habits to Rock Your Brand: Erik Qualman, Pulitzer Prize nominated author and sitting professor at Harvard and MIT edX labs, led an energetic session on the top 5 habits of digital marketplace leaders to advance your brand. Who can’t benefit from that?

Daniel Pink – Fear, Shame, Empathy, and More Ways to Change BehaviorDaniel Pink explored the power and limits of behavior change techniques from fear to gamification to empathy to distraction, with practical application in both work and play.

Biometrics and Identity: Beyond WearablesThis session considered how our personal devices will soon become the tool of choice for health management, identity management, and security. As we move toward an environment where consumers can do things such as automatically scan their blood pressure every time they access their phone, the question for publishers and membership societies in medical and adjacent markets will be twofold: How do we help educate our communities about these shifts in patient knowledge and information, and what services can we offer to help our communities best utilize this data in new and meaningful ways?

Fingerprints are Usernames, Not Passwords: In this workshop, Dustin Kirkland lead an enlightening discussion about multi-factor authentication and where and how biometrics (including fingerprints) fit in. Multi-factor requires “something you have, something you know, and something you are.” Another critical factor to security is the ability to revoke at least one or two of those factors. You can change passwords, get a new credit card number, or replace a lost phone, but your fingerprint, retinal scan, and DNA are not revokable.

Fixing Fractured User ExperiencesThis workshop presented a framework for developing “enhanced user stories” that extend beyond individual applications to ensure a unified user experience at all customer touch points – web, mobile, phone, in person, etc and included hands-on on group exercises. The techniques presented are applicable to anyone developing products/systems.

Successful Requirements GatheringThis workshop covered topics and techniques for successful requirements gathering that are independent of and applicable to any development methodology (waterfall, agile, etc.) such as active listening, transparent note-taking, accounting for invisible stakeholders. The presenter was really skillful and the hands-on exercises were illuminating.

Put IBM Watson to Work and Transform Your Business/What Will You Build with Watson on Bluemix?: This was actually two sessions. The first explained the capabilities of IBM Watson (their cognitive technology system and 2011 Jeopardy winner). The second session demonstrated how IBM is making Watson services available to anyone through Bluemix, IBM’s Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering that includes a set of 20 services you can request from Watson including concept expansion, language translation, message resonance, personality insights, as well as natural language Q&A. The cognitive computing capabilities in Watson are groundbreaking and it is incredibly exciting to see how IBM plans to make these available through its Bluemix PaaS. You can sign up for a free Bluemix trial.

Principles of UX choreography: This session demonstrated how designers can apply the Principles of Animation as practiced by Disney to add time, motion, and emotion to content delivery for a more dynamic and meaningful user experience. This is interesting to the scholarly market because it demonstrates the power of breaking from static content to make complex topics understandable.

Abandon the CMS: Journalism and Interactive Design: Of course, sessions often have provocative titles to draw attention. In this case, they actually meant “consider breaking out of your template-driven web CMS” to deliver enhanced content for special content sets that may have a wide appeal and long life and are worth some investment.

Academic research can go (almost) viral, too: In this session we learned how the Stanford Graduate School of Business turns potentially dry academic studies by their professors into engaging stories, and deliver them on a multitude of publishing platforms, including the school website, print magazine, and syndication partners, and to more than 230,000 Twitter followers.

Even in this lengthy post, it is impossible to relay the vastness and diversity of topics, discussions, and interactions that are possible at SXSW. You must go – at least once.

If you do go, we have a few tips.

  1. Register early. We try to keep the morning of August 1st clear so that we can register the minute registration opens. We do this to secure a reasonably priced hotel close to the convention center. Although the shuttle systems have improved a great deal through the years, there is nothing like being walking distance from everything.
  2. Book your flights very far in advance too. It’s amazing how fast the most convenient non-stop flights disappear!
  3. Although you’ll be registered for the conference, keep on the look out for workshop registrations. Register for workshops immediately!! This year some of the best programming was in limited seating workshops.
  4. Use the app or website and review the schedule at least a week before you go. Your options are mind blowing!!! Sort the schedule by session type. Start with Workshops, Keynotes, and Featured Sessions and then work toward panels from there. There is just too much to process without filters on!
  5. Take care to look at the location as well. If you have something you really want to see in a particular building, try to identify a second choice in the same location. This way if you don’t get in you don’t have far to go for your second choice.

Let us know if you decide to take the trip next year. We’re there every year and we’ve learned a lot about how to navigate. We’re here to help!

Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is Chief Transformation Officer at AIP Publishing, leading the Data & Analytics, Product Innovation, Strategic Alignment Office, and Product Development and Operations teams. She also serves as Board Chair of Delta Think, a consultancy focused on strategy and innovation in scholarly communications. Throughout her career she has gained broad exposure to society and commercial scholarly publishers, librarians and library consortia, funders, and researchers. As an ardent believer in data informed decision-making, Ann was instrumental in the 2017 launch of the Delta Think Open Access Data & Analytics Tool, which tracks and assesses the impact of open access uptake and policies on the scholarly communications ecosystem. Additionally, Ann has served as Chief Digital Officer at PLOS, charged with driving execution and operations as well as their overall digital and supporting data strategy.


4 Thoughts on "SXSW Interactive 2015: More Relevant Than Ever"

Thanks for the insights, Ann and team! The Schmidt–Smith scenario invokes a wry smile and I appreciate the pointer to the Stanford Graduate School of Business program – interesting work. Also appreciate your list of tips for future years! I will get to SXSW one of these days!

Ann thanks to you and your team for a great overview of SXSW. As I was in Berlin Germany speaking at the SAMA Pan Europe Conference I could not attend SXSW. You have eased my anxiety of not atteding SXSW with you and your team’s generous sharing of the highlights.

All the best,


Reviews of SXSW always interesting. About unconscious biases–The previous generation of tech and communications companies learned to get past this in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It is disappointing that this has become “unconscious” in the new millennium. Unconscionable is a better description. Though bringing more folks to the table can add voices offering new points of view–folks forget to point out that we may just be more alike.

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