Don’t believe the hype: The White Agency UX director Sam Court reflects on SXSW 2015


Sam Court Colour.jpgBy Sam Court, UX Director, The White Agency

It was amazing to be immersed in the energy of SXSW last week. Austin was truly buzzing! I saw some great speakers with lots of great viewpoints and am thankful for the opportunity to attend. But I would like to clarify a few points, as I feel like there’s a lot of hyperbole being thrown around via industry articles, and I’m not sure if many of the commentators can really substantiate their claims.


Storytelling is dead – well, the word is anyway. I believe “storytelling” has now been so overused that it’s become meaningless. Anyone that says they’re a storyteller and works in digital advertising is probably just confused and wishing they could go back to art school to make more films that no-one will ever watch.

The other word that’s been buzzed out of meaning is “Frictionless”. Reducing friction is one of the two key levers to pull in order to improve a user experience (the other being to increase motivation). But frictionless is absolute, idealistic nonsense. Stop it.


Sure wearables are interesting, and they will certainly change our interactions with both computers and other people, however I’m still not convinced they’re worth all the hype.

Seriously folks, drones are a bit ridiculous. Other than for commercial purposes like photography or maybe farming, the digital industry can safely ignore them. I mean, who’s really going to want a little helicopter buzzing in front of their face to shield them from the specific air quality?!

Smart fabrics are cool, but we need to solve some of the sustainability questions too. Patagonia is doing this, but Nike is not. And these big brands need to fix their footprint before smart fabrics can really become relevant.

Shoes that vibrate to tell you to turn left or right are fun for 15 seconds, but I feel like this will quickly get usurped by a broader interactive concept, maybe more like that seen in the film Her.

Wrist-based devices seem likely to stay stuck in the pure utility camp to me. And by “utility”, I mean with a focus on work email notifications, and keeping up with your schedule. Some people will also enjoy following stocks, weather, and commute times, but that’s about it. Maybe they’ll one day enable social interactions, or track health data that matters, but that’s a way off. The result of wearable popularisation will mean a shift in phone usage.

Take me to your leader

More broadly than just fabrics, businesses need to show leadership to maintain brand authenticity. Patagonia is setting a high bar, Nike isn’t. B Corporation is helping to standardise sustainable practices.

As we become more sophisticated app users, we’re beginning to think beyond the single-purpose apps that clog up the app stores. More people are looking for services that connect our lives in clever and useful ways, like Google Now or IFTTT. Now that’s reducing friction.

VR = Very Rad!

VR is not just 360 film, as I had thought before the SXSW. It’s actually the next generation of interactive communication (or story building as a colleague of mine might say). The combination of live action, pre-rendered, and video games makes for a killer toolbox that can be combined with user experience design.

Google Cardboard and its competitors will provide many people with their first experience of VR, and it’s really exciting. We now have the technology, but we need to respect that this is essentially a new medium with new restrictions and new opportunities. Let’s experiment!

Design & Innovation

Good design is all about developing empathy to arrive at real human insights and to relieve pain points.

The principles of the Lean Startup would benefit most organisations, as well as helping to improve the workflow of an agency like mine. We need to focus on delivering more experiments with measurable outcomes. These should be built from real tests that produce real learnings. And keep the tests small & frequent to maximise the benefits.

Dealing with uncertainty is about moving from a rigid design process to a series of “Design Sprints”. Google have a great summary of how to run successful Design Springs:

Everyone (especially designers) can become product managers. Check out Jon Kolko’s really well articulated approach:

Adobe has “open sourced” its internal innovation program:

And remember, to really innovate you need to stay curious!

My Two Cents…

Unless you want to network with the industry, overall my advice about SXSW is to save the cash and just spend time reviewing last year’s “trends”. Go talk with your customers and find out more about their lives, and how you can use existing technologies to make them better.

One more thing

If you want more proof that we should be taking stock of what we’ve already got, rather than hyping a bunch of buzzwords… just have a look at how poor the digital experience was for attendees at SXSW:

  • The schedule was a mess in every medium: desktop, mobile & app
  • The app was itself buggy
  • There was no payment or service integration (eg. Uber) into the app
  • Approximately 1,000 beacons were placed across Austin, but mostly they didn’t work. And even when then did, the information didn’t offer any value
  • SXsocial didn’t connect anyone in any meaningful ways. I knew lots of people there, but SXSW couldn’t work that out? Couldn’t connect via LinkedIn to model that?
  • We had to wear printed ID cards around our necks for the ushers to scan on the way in. Is that the best use of technology? Couldn’t the app just allow that via NFC or even a stupid QR code like the airlines do?

Anyway, I’ll stop complaining now… sorry! I just thought a more realistic review of the conference might be useful to include in the mix.