Saturday at SXSW – Tech Ethics, Word Optimization, and Data Stories

What draws people to SXSW is the insane volume of interesting things to see, experience, and eat. There are lounges, booths, tech demos, and of course, sessions. The challenge comes when a session’s popularity is underrated and more people than can fit into a ballroom attempt to get in. I originally tried to attend Netflix Shares a Decade of A/B Test Learning and Designers and Content Creators: Make Love Not War, but both sessions were packed long before I showed up. I tried to wait it out and see if some spots would open up, but eventually gave up and went with Option C: Digital Shift: Tomorrow’s Relationships and Ideals.

Photo Mar 14, 9 45 15 AM (1)

Daniel Bluzer-Fry and Kristy Richards

Digital Shift: Tomorrow’s Relationships and Ideals

Daniel Bluzer-Fry and Kristy Richards of Australian-based The Lab Strategy shared their thoughts and feelings on how humans are reacting to a more technology-driven world. They made three observations:

  1. We are always connected,
  2. We’re separating ourselves from the physical world, and
  3. We can shape ourselves how we see fit in this digital world.

They urged caution as we advance forward, suggesting that technology may cause us to lose something even as we gain (heady stuff like “Will the democratization of creativity truly make us happier or will we stand to lose something by devaluing imperfection?“). They advocated for guardrails to be put in place to help guide the future development of technology. In a surprising twist, they claimed that governments are ill equipped to deal with the regulation of such fast-paced evolution and that the onus is on the companies themselves to establish those guidelines. All in all, it was a fairly nebulous topic lacking a clear outcome of what brands or organizations should do.

Use Your Words: Optimizing Content for Growth

My second session was much more on-point and struck a great balance between clear structure, case studies, and overall presentation. It was also one that our community voted on, so big kudos to all of you for picking a winner! That session featured Evany Thomas, brand writer at Pinterest. When she wasn’t chucking Blow Pops at the audience, she shared some key insights into how finding the right words helped her team at Pinterest blow up their signups and get the brand out.

How They Measure Growth

Evany shared the metrics Pinterest’s uses to measure their growth. They were deceptively straight-forward.

  1. Sign ups – who completes the log in process
  2. Retention – who continues to log in and share content
  3. Affection and appreciation – this was much more of an intangible. The company actually collects physical snail mail fan letters and hangs them on a special wall in their office.

How to optimize your words:

Four steps to using words to optimize your organization/campaign for growth.

  1. Name Your Thing – Make it Recognizable, Legal, Internationizable, and Meaningful
  2. Describe It Well –  Just as important as how you name your company, product, or campaign is how you describe it when people ask to learn more. Case in point, which is more recognizable?

    “The Happiest Place on Earth” (hint: Mouse Ears)


    How Alexander Graham Bell described the telephone.

  3. Get People Inside – Once people have been introduced to your idea, you can begin to optimize how they interact with it. Pinterest went through numerous iterations before landing on a final design.
    These were the calls to action that the team tested before landing on the final:

    “Sign up with Facebook”
    “Join with Facebook” – did 40% worse than “Sign up”
    “Join Pinterest w/ Facebook” – did worse
    “Continue” – 29% better
    “Come on in!” – 48% better
    “Continue with Facebook” – 57% better, 19% more signups

    Pinterest’s final version of their Facebook sign up button.

    When they moved this design over to mobile web, it resulted in 811% more signups

  4. Show Them Around – Even the best designed products can use a little explaining. Don’t hesitate to revisit the topic and give your audience a helping hand.

“A great name can’t fix a bad product. A great product can fix a bad name.” – Paola Norambuena

The Art and Science of Data-Driven Storytelling

My last session of the day was The Art and Science of Data-Driven Storytelling, another choice of our web voters. The focus of this discussion ended up being much more journalism-oriented than I expected, but I came away with some impressive tools that nonprofit can use to great advantage.

Politicos will remember the presenter, Ben Casselman, who works at the Nate Silver-backed data journalism organization 538, as the popular data-analyst who made his mark during the past two Presidential elections. The conversation focused mostly on how 538 finds, scrubs, and interprets data, and then writes about the stories that the data describes. Ben shared a few tools that he finds useful:

Finding Data: FOIA requests, census data, economic releases. There is also a ton of publicly-available data available at

Organizing Data:
Google Refine
Microsoft Excel

Finally, check out the IBM Watson – Personality Insights Demonstration. Just copy/paste in the most recent State of the Union speech and look at the results. You’ll get back some very interesting insights.

That was a wrap for my Saturday at SXSW. I also got eat some great food and meet some awesome people, but hey, that’s Austin. Check back again soon for the recap of Sunday’s SXSW activities.