The South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi) brings together many of the best and brightest minds in the technology, design, and communications/entertainment world for four days of panels and parties. The crowd here seems to be largely on the same page – they are comfortable with the (very rapid) pace of innovation in this space, desperately anxious for new insights on what the next big thing will be, and confident (at least on the outside) of their own abilities. Almost by definition, we are an elite group of thinkers and doers for this space.
The goal of the event, now in its 14th year, is to tap the collective brain trust of this elite audience and channel their knowledge to keep the interactive industry all on the bleeding edge. The secondary goal, of course, is to find better ways to engage the audience who will ultimately use the technologies and content we create. What does the bleeding edge look like to us? In the first four panels that I attended on Saturday (the first full day of events) the bleeding edge included things like advergaming, widgets, and the future of movie and television production and distribution via the web. From my perspective, none of those discussions pushed much beyond the basics and certainly didn’t challenge me to think very far (if at all) outside my current experiences and understanding. I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t live and breath this stuff every day that would have found it all very interesting.
Then the last panel of the day convened.
I don’t know what the capacity crowd was expecting when they gathered for the “High Class and Low Class Web Design” panel. The four design experts were supposed to discuss whether high-end products like Apple and the New York Times design up to their elite customers while Wal-Mart, Fox News, and World Wrestling Entertainment target their working-class customers very differently (read: design down). The underlying question was whether there is a class system in the design world.
The panel didn’t do much with the topic. The meandering discussion touched on everything from user-process testing and audience panels to accessibility. There were some definitions of class offered and some bland answers to questions provided. What was striking, however, was how defensive the panelists became at the thought that their design work, or their approach to that work, could have a class bias. The crowd also reacted, with uncomfortable laughter and shifting in their seats when ads for Apple.com were compared to foot fungus medication ads. In the end, I think we all got a figurative kick in the head.
Why was everyone so uncomfortable? I have two thoughts. My first thought is that it is true — there is a difference in how design is applied to different products or issues based on the educational or economic status of the target audience – and that is sort of painful to acknowledge. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice of targeting ads based on what the audience knows. After all, the purpose of advertising is to sell products, build brand or sway people’s perspectives about an issue. The more closely aligned the ads are with the experiences of the audience being targeted the more likely they are to resonate and be effective. But if we are deliberately dumbing down our ads or design because we think that is what the audience is capable of (when they are capable of more) then we are unfairly stereotyping. My second thought is that the assembled crowd at SXSWi, and those who we represent in the interactive design and communications space in particular do not acknowledge widely and publicly enough that this is what we do. As such, we feel guilty when we are called out for it.
With that in mind, I want to issue a challenge for the interactive industry – and the designers in the group in particular. I think most marketers underestimate their audience. I think we too often believe that our education, creativity, and experience separate us from the people that we are trying to reach – that we are more sophisticated or know better than they do. It is grossly unfair to generalize, I know, but I see it all the time and I am guilty of it at times myself. So, I challenge the marketers, and designers, and others who are gathered at SXSWi to change our thinking – as individuals and as an industry. We should evolve. We should do better. Next year at SXSWi we should not debate whether there is class bias in design (we should accept that there is) but rather identify where the opportunities are for improving design across the board. We should get hands on, work with both our audiences and the designers, to understand how a rising tide can lift all boats.
Good design is absolutely subjective, but as long as we as an audience of elite thinkers in the interactive space snicker and look down on the design used to engage audiences who are not in a position to attend SXSWi, we are only contributing to the problem. A powerful innovation in our space would be to help the practice of design, and web experience, to truly challenge our audiences differently. I believe that we can use design to inspire and help all audiences learn and experience new things, instead of playing down to a lowest common denominator. Over the next year, and particularly at SXSWi 2008, I think we should prove that.