Key takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2019

Reflections from SXSW 2019

I’m happy to conclude that my favorite human traits (the traits that I love the most about my friends and colleagues) humility, curiosity and empathy were also on everyone’s lips at SXSW. There were no new tech hypes this year but lots of emphasis on the softer sides of technology and branding.

Are emotional connections and authenticity perhaps a natural progress post-Facebook scandal, which made us realize that the technology we thought was cool and helpful is somewhat biased, cynical and unnuanced? If so, I have new faith in humans and our planet. It seemed like all tech alerts were accompanied by a more “sensible” and human counterpart, and most discussions included words like emotional, authenticity, sustainability, diversity, ethics, solidarity and empathy. Just what we designers and creative techies love to hear. No need to fear robots and AI, everyone, there’s hope after all.

SXSW 2019 on HUMILITY

1. A connected world

Gartner estimated we’ll reach 20,4 billion IoT devices (connected things) by 2020, making it currently one of the fastest growing industries. Thanks to advanced analytics, integrated applications, and emerging 5G network capacities, it’s easier than ever to connect. Are we ready for this? Should we be worried? Maybe not. We accept fewer failures from robots than from humans, and many startup investors and venture funds hesitate to invest in robots that can’t be 100% trusted. We still have things to learn and improve. That’s why many at SXSW are looking for safety-focused IoT solutions that we can trust. Focusing on safety for the users over short-term profit is a good sign. And I hope this will also be on the agenda when the electric scooters are coming to town...

2. Embrace your Imposter Syndrome

Stephen Gates, Head of Design Transformation at InVision, argued that strategic design is complex and should be treated as such. We are not experts in problem-solving just because we have solved other things before. As a humble designer; connecting emotionally with the mission and problem to be addressed will take you much further than just following best practice process. Self-doubt, which we usually feel when creating change, is an indicator of high impact, so embrace your imposter syndrome. Instead of insisting on failing fast (which only will be responded by a “so why don’t you slow down and get your shit together”), instead make the argument that you are the doing a dirty job no one else has done before (which is, in fact, a long-term learning process). Be both respectful and confident – you are a problem solver.

Self-doubt, which we usually feel when creating change, is an indicator of high impact, so embrace your imposter syndrome and make the argument that you are the doing a dirty job no one else has done before. Be both respectful and confident – you are a problem solver.

3. The future of storytelling

Why should people give up their authority and leave important decisions to robots? Why should machines create stories of arts, words or music? A panel debating AI and the future of storytelling argued that AI technology will never replace great human storytellers, but AI will enable us to tell more interactive and personalized stories. Brand-building and product development work best when you can relate to your own pain points. All you need is emotional connections and authenticity. Think before you build anything and showcase trust throughout. Be transparent about your process and choices and be open and honest.

SXSW 2019 on CURIOSITY

1. Engineering and design in perfect balance

In the 4th annual Design in Tech Report, presented by John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design at Automattic, you will find many examples of data-driven and culturally grounded solutions in the intersection of design and technology. Be curious about each other's field of expertise, and you will more likely make a business impact.

(...) real change and innovation will probably not be authorized by your superiors.
Stephen Gates, InVision

2. Diverse perspectives

Stephen Gates from InVision also emphasized the need to learn from experts to make a real impact. Think beyond your specific project or solution and look for open APIs (Application programming interfaces)to enrich the user experience. Listen to customers’ emotional responses – real-time. The soft data is available up front, so why wait for analytics on past behavior? Finally, he made a stand for demanding originality as no cover band has ever changed history. Be curious and courageous. Because real change and innovation will probably not be authorized by your superiors, so you better be sorry than safe. 

3. Alternative-use cases

Tara Tan, Venture Studio Lead at IDEO, talked about how curiosity gave us blockchain technology, which empowers open financial systems that anyone, anywhere can access. These open systems demand diverse participation and collaboration. The future possibilities in blockchain are in fact drawing the contours of an open, more unbiased and fairer world. With this technology, we can, for example, design for creative ownership and financial independence in arts, for fractional ownership with more rooted communities and connections, for democracy by securing accountability, for autonomous companies run by collective decision-making, for transparent voting, peer-to-peer loans, community-pooled insurances, or borderless, stable currencies (which is needed in, for example, Venezuela). The list goes on.

The truth is, designing great digital products and services isn’t about understanding technology, it’s about understanding people. Which lead us over to the final trait; empathy.

SXSW 2019 ON EMPATHY

1. Drowning in data but starving for insights

A panel of Information Architects and Artificial Intelligence scientists argued that hard analytics must be supported by soft emotions since the value and usefulness from a lot of data can at times be difficult to grasp. Data is everywhere, but real insights are harder to find, which made it apparent that we need to balance quantitative and qualitative methods to get the full picture. Data-driven marketing or production must be teamed up with real-time connections and human response.

2. Human branding

Every month no less than 550.000 new companies are established in the US alone. How are you going to stand out from the crowd? By being empathetic and authentic, said Lyn Graft, founder of LG Pictures, LLC, there’s a desire to design products and services to a person, and not a persona, as consumers are demanding authenticity and real connections. A panel of powerhouse marketers reminded us about the increasing purchasing power of women (across almost all segments). This was a powerful wakeup-call to continue fighting for more women in the C-suite – to make sure brands are prioritizing being open, real and empathetic. Because no one else has YOUR story and that is your power. The shoe brand TOMS is the perfect example of such storytelling; buy one pair of shoes, and someone in another country gets a pair for free.

3. The business value of design

The results from McKinsey & Company’s survey from 300 companies over five years suggest that design is far more powerful than just eye candy on physical and digital products. Design-driven organizations have 4x higher revenue and 26x higher valuation, according to Designbetter.com. Design is evolving from seen as a commodity outside an organization to an asset inside a design native organisation. Design Thinking is proved good for business (but we already knew that).

Design-driven organizations have 4x higher revenue and 26x higher valuation, according to Designbetter.com.

To summarise, humility, curiosity, and empathy might be precisely the traits that will save our planet, its people and businesses’ profit. I believe that by adding humility, curiosity, and empathy to technological innovation, we can build the brands we´ve always wanted, and products and services that will engage and be trusted. And we find them in any designer’s toolbox.

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Trine Harnes

Trine Harnes
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