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Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps

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SXSW 2011: Bloated but Lovable

Posted Mar 27, 2011 (updated Mar 28, 2011)

Dale Watson
Seeing Dale Watson at The Continental Club: sensational. This is my Instagram snap.

I had a great time at SXSW this year. Maybe too great: this old man did his best to keep up with the kids through a storm of backflips, Escalades, house parties, roadhouses, cocktails, barbecue, rockabilly, beers, and mighty smart conversation. All that fun takes a toll, and I'm just now getting over the nasty chest cold I caught on the plane on the way home.

For all the fun that was afoot, though, a personal highlight for me (and oh man, I hope, for my audience) was giving my talk about iPad app design. "iPad Design Headaches: Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning" focused on the common mistakes I've seen in tablet design in our first full year with the iPad. With my very best bedside manner, I did my best to offer prescriptions for these design maladies. A large and generous group showed up bright and early on Saturday morning, and I couldn't have asked for a better audience. Thanks to all of you for your interest and enthusiasm.

Miss My Talk?

lanyrd lanyard
 Simon and Nat gave me a Lanyrd lanyard, which I plan to wear obsessively at all conferences going forward.

The best way to find out what went down is to visit the Lanyrd page for my session. There you'll find the slides from my presentation, as well as links to the many write-ups, sketchnotes, and photos that emerged from the talk. Many thanks especially to Kyle Pott, who shared his extraordinarily detailed notes. (You can also find my slides at Slideshare, where I included an outline of my comments in the presenter notes.)

Hey, speaking of Lanyrd, I'm hardly the first to say so, but man they really hit their stride at SXSW. If you don't know it already, Lanyrd is a social conference directory and a great way to discover new conferences, see what your network is attending, and track content from talks. Simon and Natalie, the geniuses behind the curtain, really showed off the service's promise by making SXSW's session schedule manageable and understandable, even unveiling a GPS-powered session finder midway through the event. Amazing.

SXSW sure needed Lanyrd's help to make sense of the schedule. This was one king-sized hootenanny. As is customary after every SXSW, many have bemoaned the sprawling size of the thing. For the first time, though, I really felt that it was just too unsustainably big—unmanageable as a conference. It imploded under its own weight. I can't argue with anything that Leonard Lin wrote about this year's event. And John Gruber summed it up nicely:

Used to be that SXSW was an interesting conference and a great weekend experience. Now it’s a terrible conference and a good-but-crowded weekend experience.

It's not that there's not great content in SXSW sessions—there is. (Man, you should've heard the smart conversation hosted by Jennifer Brook and Erin Sparling about the future of tablet-based news.) It's just that with over 700 talks, there are also a slew of clunky ones. Even if you do find the good presentations, it's mighty tough to physically get to them. This year, the show was spread out over seven different "campuses," some of them a good mile from the main convention center location.

The organizers faced an impossible puzzle of finding a home for all those sessions, and that meant that lots of sessions wound up in completely inappropriate venues. Kristina Halvorson's content strategy panel was in a room that sat only around 100 people—the very same room where Michael Lopp (Rands), John Gruber, and Jim Coudal gave a sensational presentation about writing. Both of those sessions had lines out the door and could have filled a room of 1000 or more, easy.

It's frustrating to schlep a mile only to find a room not even reasonably close to the size of the speakers' following. Meanwhile, other cavernous rooms were given over to sparsely attended talks given by unknowns. I really like that SXSW makes it a priority to find new voices, but the venue mismatch was disappointing for speakers and audience alike.

My take: for the first time, SXSW finally ran over the levee, flooding Austin's limited hotel and conference infrastructure. With around 20,000 attendees, it just became too big to be a useful conference.

And yet it was also one of the best social weeks of my professional life, because I had the good fortune to meet or get reacquainted with some of my favorite people in the business. You know who you are, and I hope you also know just how much you rock. Thanks for being so mind-bendingly awesome. I learned and laughed a ton.

This may change (and soon), but for now, just about everyone comes to SXSW, and the opportunities to talk, eat, and imbibe with good friends, internet idols, and our entire tribe is just too good not to miss. It's spring break for nerds, and while it seems unfashionable to say, I can't help it: I love SXSW.

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