Caring is Cool (Again): Lessons from SXSW ’14

This year I was lucky enough to join other members of the Buckeye Interactive team in attending SXSW Interactive in beautiful Austin, TX. There were six of us on the trip this year: Sarah, Brad, Tony, Josh, Paul, and myself (better luck next time, Lorraine, Patrick, and Tori!). Now that I’ve had a few days to recuperate, it’s time to share what I picked up this year.

A recurring theme among some of the [less-technical] sessions I attended was that it’s finally cool (again) to care about the product! For the past few years it’s felt like a lot of agencies were falling into a “push it out the door as quick as possible, we’ll fix whatever’s broken after launch” mentality, which has never sat right with me. I’d prefer to spend the time upfront to release a higher-quality, less-than-full-featured product than one that’s buggy or feels half-assed. It seems like a lot of the speakers were finally(!) putting the emphasis back on craftsmanship.

A too-cool-for-school hipster barista with the caption "We cared about software craftsmanship before it was cool"

One of the most inspirational sessions that Sarah and I attended was “How to Say ‘F**k No’ & Still Have Them Love You” by Michael Nieling of Ocupop. In his talk, Nieling focused the “amateurism” culture of today (e.g. “I just bought a DSLR camera so now I’m a photographer,” “I built my website on Squarespace so I think I know a thing or two about web development,” etc.) and how it’s impacting professionals. He advocated for the client to focus on the “what” (the goals of the project), the agency to focus on the “how” (trust us, it’s what we do every day), and for both to work together to zero in on the “why” (the core problem we’re trying to solve).

Nieling framed parts of his presentation around an auto mechanic analogy that went something like this: If your car wasn’t starting, then a mechanic looked at it and said “based on my years of experience I recommend we replace the alternator,” you don’t yell at him and say “screw you, put new brakes on it!” It seems silly to present a problem to a professional in his/her field, pay them for their input, then completely ignore their suggestions on solving that problem.

Why then do so many clients take this attitude with the guidance of agencies that employ professional problem solvers?

Good design is both an art and a science; it’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also helps to convey thoughts, ideas, and information. A designer does not throw imagery, colors, and fonts together randomly; he or she makes calculated decisions based on the content hierarchy and priority, intended mood, etc.

Neiling suggested that understanding the target audience and being able to walk clients through why certain design decisions were made (or at least being prepared to defend them when the client cries “make the logo bigger!”) will help to assert the designer as a trusted advisor rather than a pixel-pushing Photoshop jockey.

The question shouldn’t be “how does the design look,” but rather, “why does the design work?”

The same holds true for development: we’re not arbitrarily copying and pasting code, we’re building an integrated system with many moving parts. If we as developers can educate clients why certain technologies were used it only helps to assert us as the engineers tasked with designing the best solution to the problem.

While you probably won’t hear us scream “f**k no!” on the phone, a good working relationship—one that produces a high-quality product—means the agency can’t just roll over at the whim of every stakeholder. You focus on the “what”, we focus on the “how”, and together we’ll zero in on the “why.”