SxSW Themes Part 1

by March 21, 2006

Though SxSW2006 covered a broad range of Web design, development, and business topics, certain themes cut across multiple sessions and other echoed some of the ideas I’ve recently been working through on Functioning Form.

A New Age of Learning

Jim Coudal pointed out that the craft and enjoyment of learning is a key advantage when it comes time to start your own business. Peter Morville noted that the act of searching is a learning process -it keeps you a lifelong learner.

During the Renaissance, artists were engineers. But as we moved forward, the "assembly line" model that heralded the industrial age, carried over to people. Specialization thrived. You were either an artist or an engineer. Now enter the personal computer. The same interface (desktop metaphor and all) allows you to be an accountant (Excel and VisiCalc), an artist (Photoshop and Illustrator), and an engineer. A whole world of learning is available to you.

This concept was echoed by Doc Searls in the Cluetrain panel: “We are completing the enlightenment that was interrupted by industrial revolution”.

Decision Making

The study of how people make decisions has spawned a number of different insights. Dan Gilbert says there’s a simple equation for making decisions but we can’t make use of it because how we make sense of (perceive) the world around us degrades our ability to estimate odds and value. Malcom Gladwell outlines the positive effects of this “flaw” by espousing the virtues of instantaneous decision-making. James Surowiecki reasons that under the right conditions, groups of people can negate the limitations of each individual’s decision-making skills.

From my perspective all of these concepts are in harmony with one another –a fact that an email discussion between Gladwell and Surowiecki seems to support.

At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), I had the opportunity to work on interface designs for an intelligent decision-making environment. We were able to map some of the automated learning techniques we were developing (Knowledge Discovery, Collaboration, Deliberation, and Corporate Memory) to modes of communication (Inquiry, Instruction, Conversation, and Debate). Of particular note was the addition of concept mapping to the decision-making process. After gathering input on a particular topic or issue, we presented a series of information visualizations that grouped “concepts” and showed the variance between viewpoints. These visual representations became very useful for illuminating the relationships between opinions and data.

Web Business Models

From subscriptions to Google ads, many of the presenters at SxSW had tried lots of different ways of monetizing their Web content or services. Most felt that while Google ads helped pay hosting bills, a more targeted solution was required to get real value from their content or products. Many were using (or building) more targeted ad networks designed to reach a specific audience with highly relevant advertising. A key driver for this shift was the need to find a balance between revenue and quality content/user experience.