My raw notes for day three can be found here

Journalism and Blogging About Online Worlds

This was one of the most novel panels I attended at the conference. The discussion was very interesting, as was the background. The various panelists all had different experiences — some were trying to do “serious” journalism from within the game, others tabloid reporting from within the game, which of course was the novel & interesting approach, but there was a nice balance from outside-but-about-the-game reporters as well. The panelists were:

  • Wagner James Au, who reports in-game on Second Life
  • Ludlow, who edits the Second Life Herald, which has the best tagline ever: “Always Fairly Unbalanced”. He explained that they were really going for the deep dark depths of tabloid journalism, including “Post 6” girls
  • Tony Walsh who said he’s been a gamer for 25 years, of every type, even LARPing which he views as the lowest rung of the geek hierarchy
  • Jane Pinckard of GGA fame, who thinks that furries are, in fact, the bottom of the geek hierarchy

The discussion began with Au saying that he does two types of reporting — using game events as a catalyst for real-world journalism, as well as the game as a micro-cosm for real-world issues. One of the most interesting examples that came up of the latter was a woman in Second Life building a Nazi death camp in game — she was eventually booted off the service for “hate design”. This touched upon the progression of games — these days people really do live a second life in their community games, sometimes, which has changed the boundaries and importance of what is happening. Walsh noted that with the number of people actively involved in some games (larger than country populations!) in-game news was developing fast and that soon you’ll be able to “turn on the news in Everquest and see what’s happening in the world … ‘Orcs rampaging…!'”.

The other main theme was the ethics and constraints of in-game and about-game writing. Since games are all owned by companies and the online services run by them, there is no guarantee of online freedom of speech, or any other freedom. The companies act as moderators, dispute-settlers and gods in various instances. I think there’s an interesting question here about whether growing up playing games in this sort of online environment will change children’s attitudes to authority and their expectation of rights, but I imagine we’ll need to wait a few years to see how that plays out. What we might be seeing is the decline of democracy in an online setting.

How to Inform Design

The presentation for this panel is available here. The panelists were Nick Finck, Kit Seeborg and the ever-inspiring (and tall!) Jeff Veen. It was a brilliant, lively panel and if you want essentially a direct transcript, then there are some very detailed notes here.

Jeff started out with a discussion of quantitative and qualitative methods. He nicely summarized what I think is a recurring problem with quantitative methods — you end up measuring people’s mistakes and fixing those points that are prioritised. Qualitative methods that would help you create a more intuitive design from the outset may well provide a more useful end-result. You need to talk to your (potential or actual) users, get a feeling for what they are like, immerse yourself in “being them”, so then you can make decisions that will make the design intuitive. The overarching idea here is that the users need to influence design for them to be able to use it successfully.

Kit then weighed in with another point to consider — the money trail. You need to identify who’s paying for it all to understand where the real decision-making power is. I love that this was brought up, because however “messy” and non-altruistic it seems, it is such a crucial consideration, so frequently forgotten. I’ve seen many projects go complete down the drain because no one is really sure who is really in charge, so they just listen to the most vocal stakeholder … but eventually the real decision-making power becomes evident. The worst possible time for this to happen is at the end of the project — when it is cancelled or deemed a failure for completely missing the mark.

Much of the rest of the panel focused on various ways of informing design — user testing, task analysis, business analysis (because if you can’t find where the business needs & user needs overlap, then you are way screwed), progress tracking (uptake, page views, RSS feeds, etc). There were also some specific examples — the best was Amazon doing hundreds of A/B tests (where they serve up two slightly different versions of the page and then measure the “effectiveness” of either option). The point made was that this kind of incremental design seems a good way to go on the face of things, but if you look at an Amazon product page now, how intuitive is it really? How easily can you get to the information you want?

My key take outs were:

  • Use whatever method works to get you up close & personal with the users, understanding their needs and delivering against them
  • Make sure you know where the money trail leads — and what the real decision-makers will deem success
  • Research shouldn’t be an event — it should be ongoing and part of the culture (which means it needs to be cheap!)

Lunch

We failed to leave the conference centre for lunch, which seemed lazy but actually worked out amazingly well, because we ended up having lunch with Lyman Phillips and Molly, two of the most interesting people we were lucky enough to spend time with at SXSWi. It was also one of the most ungeeky and diverse conversations — ranging from discrimination through to nationalism and beyond. We were later joined by KC, so going round the table I think we covered every continent in some way and a great many points of view! It rocked and will stay as one of my fondest memories of the conference. We also completely failed to attend Wonkette’s keynote, but it was completely worth it 🙂

Women of Web Design

This panel rocked and got me thinking about a load of different angles on the issue that probably deserve their own blog entries. The panelists were Tiffany Brown, Min Jung Kim, Maxine Sherrin, Eric Meyer (complete with his fire extinguisher), Nancy Massey and Molly. I loved the diversity shown here, in age, ethnicity, background and even gender! (but then I’m a a bit funny about that kind of thing [Word doc, I’m afraid, try the Google cache])

As for the content of the actual panel, it was very much an exploration of the problem rather than potential solutions, but I still think this was a big step forward. We need to be thinking and talking about these kind of things before we can start doing anything about them. Perhaps next year we’ll have progressed far enough to head over to the solutions space…

Key thoughts:

  • There aren’t enough highly linked up female role models in the blogosphere
  • Women who do show leadership tend to do so in their comfort zones (e.g. MJ considered and found her leadership positions were always related to her being female & Asian)
  • Often we don’t even notice how gender-skewed things are
  • Women tend to be less confident in their skills — as Elly noted on Ping’s blog, we often don’t view ourselves as experts even when we evidently are

Although the most striking thing for me in this panel was that not only was the room full of women, it was largely bereft of laptops! I’m still trying to work out exactly what that means….

How To Trick Out Your Blog

Did exactly what it said on the tin. Panelists were Tantek Celik, Jay Allen, Matt Mullenweg and Dunstan Orchard. Somewhere between a panel and a show&tell discussion, but some good advice came out of it:

  • Follow your passions, consume to find out what you really love, then let your content reflect this
  • Highlight activity on your blog –> recent comments, RSS feeds, etc
  • Google loves meaningful post URLs, so turn off the crappy defaults
  • Linking is the essence of the web, so link and be a good connector for people
  • Keep notes of what you really hate/love in terms of blog features and act on them