South by Southwhat: I Can Hear You Now

If there was one theme that could be derived from the cacophonous meeting rooms and corridors at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival last week it’s this: Mobile, mobile, mobile.

You've come a long way, kids. (flickr: seanaes)


The production and delivery of news is increasingly mobile.  Marketing is focused on mobile.  Gaming is set on mobile.  Music is tuned in to mobile.  Even in the crowd there were far fewer laptops and far more iPads than I’ve ever seen.

Mobile devices are now essential hardware in our daily lives – and news organizations of all sizes need to consider mobile the battleground of the next decade, as Peter Gelb, head of mobile practice at Razorfish, put it.  He notes the average person looks at their handheld 150 times a day.

A number of relevant takeaways for digital journalist-thinkers, all relating to mobile:

  • The future of mobile apps is not in apps at all, but the mobile web.
Looks like an app, works like an app, but it's all web underneath.

With HTML5 and the right skills, you can now build a web experience that feels more like an app than before.  Take, for example, Travelmate by (Click here on your mobile device, or here on an old fashioned computer.)

This language translation and cash conversion tool looks and functions just like a native app you may find for your iPhone or Android-based device.  You can easily create an icon for your phone’s home screen to easily access it.  But it is, in reality, simply surfing the web.

Most important, says James Pearce of Sencha, you can make changes to your product without having to ask Steve Jobs to add an update to his store.  Were I in the middle of designing a mobile app, it would not be an app at all.

  • Mobile is a two-way tool.

John Keefe, the visionary who has helped WNYC and the public radio show The Takeaway employ mobile in gathering news, demoed a few lines of code he wrote on the plane en route to SXSW.

After soliciting SMS text messages from community members, WNYC was able to follow-up with more specific questions for those users.  The newsroom could then automatically call those people if they agreed to be in a news story about the topic.  And finally, the station could make available at a certain phone number the full report on the topic – and text that number to their story participants.  Thinking about how you can complete the circle with story sources is even more important when you’ve connected with a device that they carry in their pocket.

  • Mobile must be engaging.
Peter Vesterbacka, of Angry Birds fame, at the Game Developers Conference (flickr: officialgdc)

In a red Angry Birds sweatshirt, with a few stuffed birds tucked under his arms, Peter Vesterbacka talked about the key to making such a success of the game that recently passed the 100 million download mark.

He’s spent nothing on advertising, but responded to every single tweet, every email, every comment from people of all walks of life.  His team took a design from a five-year-old fan and turned it into a level.  Imagine, he implored, if every big entertainment brand connected with fans like this when they release new movies, new albums, or new products.

And since we’re all trying something, it is important to note that Angry Birds was gamemaker Rovio’s 52nd game since 2003.  Sometimes it takes just the right strike to clear the level.

In general, I’m working on making this my design thinking motto my own for the next 51 weeks: Try. Test. Repeat.


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