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SXSW: Paradox of Choice

SXSW is always a mixed bag. Much like Austin itself, it loves to be 'weird' so anyone coming to SXSW for a 'normal' conference always comes away a bit dazed and confused. That's part of its charm and why I've spoken there 3 years running: it's always weird, and usually worth it.

But this year SXSW finally become something it so desperately has tried to avoid in the past: it has become successful. It has burst from its seams, sprawling across the entire city, becoming a glitzy, advertising driven evil twin of it's former self.

Yes, it still has the goofy breakfast burrito slinging PR people on bicycles and the cowboy serving free tequila shots in the park. These are the odd duck aspects that make it fun. Even the horrible, shoddy shuttle service to the hotels, the driving rain, and the collapse of the taxi system, while frustrating, really couldn't dampen the spirit of the place. These are the things you just put up with and get on with the experience.

What drove me crazy was the total overload of low quality speakers. At the 11am slot on Saturday, I had a choice of >60 options. This takes 'paradox of choice' to a ludicrous level. Several attendees, along with myself, were clearly overwhelmed. These 60 talks were spread across more than 8 separate hotels, some nearly 5 miles away. The buses were completely overloaded, requiring you to plan hours in advance to see the things you wanted. Several folks complained of great talks/panels that they just couldn't get to. Far flung, but promising panels got only 16 attendees. SXSW has become an unmanageable cancerous mess.

More than one person told me of sitting in a talk, realizing it wasn't so good so had the difficult task of finding something good yet still close enough to actually make it. The cruel irony was that if you ended up finding something, by the time you got there, it would likely be full and returning to your original choice would be full as well. Stalemate.

Now to be fair, there were good talks. The keynotes were almost always worth while. The big secret was not to actually see them in the main conference center as it was a zoo with long snaking lines. The real experts found a quiet simulcast lounge and kept the location a carefully guarded secret.

The problem was with the actual normal bread and butter talks. With nearly 3000 speakers, it shouldn't be a surprise that the majority were rather tepid and even a bit obvious. SXSW's new problem is quality control. Finding a talk that really excited you was something you shared in the evening as it was something to be celebrated.

I finally stumbled onto the best strategy: scour the schedule for the best thing you wanted to see that day and just go to its building AND NOT MOVE. Just enjoy what you can in that location. That way you were sure to see the thing you wanted and didn't kill yourself moving around. I've written previously about the important relationship between value and pain in any design project.  SXSW still has very high value to be sure, I don't want to completely rag on it, but it's clear that it's pain has increased significantly. For many, it won't be worth the effort in the future.

Image from flickr user Harry Brignull.

As frog's Creative Director, Scott Jenson was the first member of the User Interface group at Apple in the late 80s, working on System 7, the Apple Human Interface guidelines and the Newton. After that, he was a freelance design consultant for many years, then director of product design for Symbian, and finally managed the mobile UX group at Google. You can follow frog Creative Director Scott Jenson on Twitter @scottjenson.