Plenty of Ideas for Mobile Learning: A SXSW Interactive Recap

Next-Generation Apps, Content Strategy and More

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My first trip to SXSW Interactive is over. Wish I could have stayed through the music and film portion of the event, but it was time to get back home and back in the office.

I went to SXSWedu last year as a speaker, but this was the first time at the very large and still growing mecca of Web conferences. I got a chance to be an attendee with no speaking responsibilities. That was a nice change from my usual engagement at conferences.

How did it go? Let’s check it out.

Thursday – Book Lodging in Advance

Travel in was uneventful, largely (always a good thing). Made it to my room which was out in the sticks, got my badge after waiting for a very slow computer problem-ridden line. Then took the shuttle downtown, walked through the already bustling convention center to pick up my swag bag.

After walking through downtown Austin and popping into some rooftop Austin City Limits Music event, it was time to get back to the room and get ready for the conference. Learned that if I were to go back to SXSW again, I need to book a lot earlier. Lodging and logistics from the remote hotels were troublesome.

Friday – Arguments for Mobile Learning, Rethinking Process

Went to “What Do We Build Next?” – Innovation at Adobe. They discussed a number of cool new prototyping tools they are working on (looking for testers, too). One was a Moodboard creation tool. Very cool stuff, indeed. I tweeted a lot of that session. Take a look here:






They discussed lean methods used and finding product-market fit. I really liked seeing what Adobe has around the corner. If half of the things they demoed became real this year, it would be a big deal. Go, Adobe, Go!

Going back to the convention center, I was able to catch the tail end of Gary Vanyerchuk’s featured session. Now, I’m not usually a Gary Vee fan (not a hater, either – just not a fan), though he made one of the best arguments for mobile learning I’ve heard yet. Basically, memorization and teaching to the test are pointless when you have a device in your pocket that already has all the answers on it. Go, Gary, Go!


Next session was Austin Kleon’s keynote on “Show Your Work,” in which he argued for letting your customers into your process and including them in the creation. Giving the right time and place to make decisions and co-create with you. Reaffirming of a lot of things we are doing at Float (that’s always a good thing to have to happen). I want to get his new book – so nice job, Austin. Really enjoyed that session. It was inspirational and humorous.



“Your Founder is Your Product Manager” was next up. A few startup product managers discussed A/B testing, ensuring that the CEO and senior managers if they are in a product manager role, are actually competent product managers, not just managers of the company who became de facto product managers.

The panel was a little rough around the edges (a little pitchy, IMHO), but I did get some follow-up reading and research to look into. Topics like “procedural justice” in crowdsourcing or user-suggested features was a big idea that was somewhat new in its framing to me, I thought.

Closed the day with “What’s the New Having it All?” It talked about doing good work, making a good living and making a difference in something for the better as being a path to fulfillment. I enjoyed the session but was hoping for a bit more on work-life balance and family expectations.

Saturday – Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Content Strategy

I went to “Feature Assassins” to start out. Soundcloud, Stack Overflow, Skillshare and Disqus were are all represented on a panel to talk about how to you remove things from your product. Sometimes you have to take away things that some people may love to make it better for others. A bit on A/B testing and data was discussed, but this was a little higher level than true product management advice. I think this was a good session for me, as it helped to see things at a pretty large scale. These sites and apps all serve massive audiences.

Following session was the Julian Assange conversation. It was a Skype call that had all the hallmarks of typical Skype (sorry Skype, I love ya, but man… you can be crummy sometimes). Somewhat poor audio quality overall, a bit of stuttering video here and there, and, of course, microphone problems.

Once things got going, it was better, but still not what I would have really wanted to see. He was asked a fair amount of elementary or self-evident questions that could have been easily answered via Google searches.

I liked his take on the question, “Are you afraid?”

“Of course,” he said. “I am a human.”

Assange went on to state that he felt that bravery was something that obviously requires you face your fears and still do what you feel is right. He made some fairly bold assertions about the NSA and their role in the government. It was interesting to see such a heralded and simultaneously hated the person in a “live” setting. Mashable, Gawker, and many people and media outlets I follow on Twitter slammed his speech for saying a lot of nothing.

But honestly, if you were thinking it was going to be some kind of leak fest where he unveiled a ton of new stuff, you must have been fooling yourself.

After Mr. Assange, I got an opportunity to get a personal demo of the new Epson Moverio hardware from the very talented developer and designer of a number of augmented reality games for wearable technology, Sean McCracken.

The Moverio hardware is cool, the graphics were amazing, and I think there is a much stronger set of use cases for the platform than there is for Google Glass. This isn’t something that you would wear all the time, but as a field technician or telemedicine practitioner, among other disciplines, I can see this product making serious inroads in corporations. Very cool, Epson, and excellent work Sean.

Man did look geeky in them.

I walked back to the convention center after getting a quick bite to eat and attempted to get back into the Neil deGrasse Tyson session, but it was too full *sad trombone*. The overflow room in Ballroom D would have to do. That room showing the simulcast was almost full itself! The conversation was a blast from start to end. The man is just witty, amazingly intelligent and full of life. Some of the most memorable quotes:



After Dr. Tyson’s enlightening and hilarious session, I thought I could make it over for the Seth Myers’ Inside Late Night session. Not happening. It was packed.

So, I did what any sane person would duck into the PayPal Lounge, got a free double espresso and proceeded to charge my devices while I checked email and caught up with the Twitter stream for the event. A fun space, they had tons of snacks and a stage with some speakers. Not bad.

Leaving PayPal, I ran into some other friends that I hadn’t ever met in real life but knew quite well from online life. Isn’t this an amazing time?

Next up was Kristina Halvorson’s “Go Home Marketing, You’re Drunk.”

Poignant and necessary, it really shone a light on the emptiness and pointlessness of so much of this content marketing B.S. that gets peddled to us today. While companies are busy tweeting away, setting up Pinterest boards and “writing authentic and brand-enhancing” articles and blogs, Rome burns – Rome being the rest of the websites they should be re-architecting and fixing.

Dude, your website is broken with nothing but tons of little buckets of content and rotting links to PDFs… Fix it!

I have to admit I’m a huge fan of Kristina and her message, so this really resonated with me.

I experience the same thing almost every day helping companies make their mobile learners more effectively. While everyone is focused on trying to get their custom Flash templates or what-have-you run on an iPad, even the most basic things that you could be offering them and the effort you could spend on fixing your rotting infrastructure fall by the wayside. Fix your stuff.

One of my favorite slides from her talk:

That night ended going to a party held by Deloitte that was a lot of fun, with Melissa Etheridge doing a really cool solo unplugged show. I could have done without the guy near the front who kept holding up his iPad to take photos, but, whatcha gonna do? Anyway, thanks Deloitte. I also won one of your giveaways during the festival, so that was also cool. Good times.

Sunday – Next-Generation Apps, Meeting Guy Kawasaki

Sunday was going to be a short day since I had to fly out of Austin in the afternoon, so I was determined to get what I could out of it.

I went to a panel on “How Smart Apps will Revolutionize Computing,” and overall, it was pretty good. Too many audio issues to start out, but once underway, Quentin Hardy did a good job keeping the conversation moving.

I covered a bit of the session in my tweets – A little on big data, a lot on trust and providing value to the user. It’s clear that the next generation of devices and apps will be using us just about as much as we are using them. Machine learning and lots more will enhance our experiences and make these devices more useful to us.

Before I left, I ducked into the exhibition hall.

Some interesting exhibits and all, but I was expecting better schwag as SXSW. I like a few vendors that I met there, and will definitely be looking into some analytics platforms (Tableau and Zoomdata) and data normalization services ( I came across. It was a good use of time for me, and I think I can take some of the new products I saw back to the office to help Float out.

Some of the kookiest things I saw? Exoskeletons and telepresence robots. One would have been better served by have Matt Damon there to demo it and the other really just came across as a strange presentation method (I saw several telepresence bots, but no actual people manning the booth). Maybe that was their goal?

Before jumping on a jet back home, I checked out the Microsoft Studio. Pretty swanky. Lots of cool techs, and a kick-butt demo of a game created with their new virtual world and game development engine, Project Spark Really. Interesting, for sure, and something I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Finally, before getting into a cab to leave Austin for home, I ran into Internet celeb, talented writer and a fellow Apple fan, Guy Kawasaki. Check it out… it’s us in a Game of Thrones Pedicab.

After returning home, I’ve continued keeping up with the Twitter hashtags and keynotes that are still being simulcast. I enjoyed the complicated and detailed conversation with Edward Snowden. Security and privacy have obviously been on a lot of people’s minds over the past 6 months, so the timing for his talk is obviously perfect. Nice coup by the conference organizers on securing his appearance via the Google Hangout (which according to the hosts was going through seven proxies).

In Closing

So, there you go. My thoughts on SXSW Interactive 2014.

Will I be back for 2015? Tough to say, but between the 3D-printed Oreo cookies, appearances by Grumpy Cat and the outside chance that you might run into someone that is geek celeb famous, it’s tough to say no.

Thanks, SXSW. And thank you, Austin.

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Chad Udell is the Managing Partner, strategy and new product development, at Float. There he leads his design and development teams to successful outcomes and award-winning work via a strong background in both disciplines and a singular focus on quality. He has worked with industry-leading Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to design and develop experiences for 20 years. Chad is recognized as an expert in mobile design and development, and he speaks regularly at national and international events and conferences on related topics. Chad is author of Learning Everywhere: How Mobile Content Strategies Are Transforming Training and co-editor and chapter author, with Gary Woodill, of Mastering Mobile Learning: Tips and Techniques for Success. His newest book, Shock of the New, co-authored with Gary Woodill was released in April of 2019.

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On March 13, 2014
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