What I Learned About Your SXSW Experience

And how I accidentally started a research sprint on Twitter

I’m currently working on a new product to improve the attendee experience at tech conferences. While I got many insights by asking friends and family to tell me about the last conference they went to, I needed to reach more people who go to tech conferences. Last week, SXSW Interactive was happening in Austin, TX. If you’re not familiar, SXSW is a yearly gathering of many people from all over the tech industry filled with talks, parties, and big announcements.

I was seeing lots of tweets about the event popping up on my feed and friends posting their travel updates to Austin on Facebook. Many people who go to the event engage with others and share their experiences in a variety of social channels. Given the attendees’ online presence, why not poll Twitter?

Starting a research sprint by accident

Because of a few unexpected retweets on this first poll, I was getting more people excited to vote and share their thoughts. I immediately thought of how Michael Margolis of GV runs immersive research sprints to quickly understand other people’s perspectives. Much like the initial phase of any good design thinking project, a research sprint is geared at interviewing, observing, and analyzing your customers to answer important questions.

The engagement I received from the SXSW crowd was great, so I decided to post on a regular cadence throughout the week. The second question was geared toward learning:

Beyond the polls, I tried to reach out to people who commented, liked, or followed me as a result of my tweets. I ended up having 10+ in-depth conversations throughout the week. Several people offered and talked to me via phone and video chat.

Results from my accidental sprint

Twitter polls are not scientific, but they can answer my questions about how people learn and connect at conferences. My top insights are:

  • Most attendees prefer quality over quantity when it comes to meeting people. A lot of ambitious attendees try to meet as many people as possible, but savor longer conversations when they meet someone interesting.
  • Learning and retaining info is a personal preference, but there are plenty of opportunities to help. Robert suggested to hire an intern to be a scribe at your conference (and has himself!):
  • Despite the popularity of the conference, there are a few areas attendees hope will improve for future years.

The “offline” conversations

By reaching out via DM and asking follow-up questions, I had about 30 conversations. More than 10 were in-depth conversations. I can’t stress how vital this is — reaching out individually was the best way to improve my understanding of the attendee experience. People like to talk about themselves and their experiences if you ask thoughtful questions.

If you can make it happen, try to observe your customers directly. You won’t be able to reach the same number of people, but can lead to the best insights. This could be a follow up activity you may consider after engaging and finding helpful participants.

The costs of my research sprint

Tweeting is free — although you might want to pay for power tools in the future. I would have loved to edit my tweets!

I paid $33 over two Twitter ad campaigns as my polls were closing. This was not effective, but I learned a lot from messaging Twitter Ads Help (@TwitterAdsHelp). I asked them how to increase tweet engagement, write effective copy for ads, and test my campaigns. I wanted a feature to dynamically vary ad copy, and I hope my suggestion gets bubbled up. Till then, I created a Twitter Moment to be able to present the polls in a more ad-friendly manner.

Quick promote ads are pretty quick! Before realizing they are optimized for impressions, not engagement, I already spent $3.
Various ad creatives I tested over 3 days. I tested two at at time, and paused the least engaging creative.

Personally engaging with my network was much easier (and free!), although I now know more about Twitter ads for the next time I need to use them.

Refocusing my efforts from designing/building during the week to research paid off. Sure — I didn’t get to create new features last week, but I can now double-down with confidence on the features I’ll be working on next. I also made invaluable connections with people who have ideas to make conferences better.

How can I apply this to my own research if my customers aren’t on Twitter?

Twitter just happens to be where my customers were for SXSW. You can find where your customers are talking and engage with them there.

During my first job in design, I learned about truck owners and prospective buyers through online truck forums. It was a low-cost, highly effective form of research.

When we built a prototype of a product to help future truck buyers and novice truck owners, we set up a more formal study. The in-depth, moderated, 1-on-1 interviews tested how well our product informed them about towing and payload. We found it was easier for our participants to decide which truck to buy using the towing and payload guide. This product wouldn’t have been possible without spending hours on truck forums to understand our customers.

“Research makes great design possible”
— Michael Margolis

If your customers talk on Twitter, go there. If your customers talk on online truck forums, go there. Find where your customers talk and go there.

Research doesn’t always need to be expensive or meticulously planned. Have you had any experiences finding research opportunities in unexpected places?

What I’m doing next

First, this research would not have been possible without the support of Product Hunt (Ryan Hoover, Niv Dror, et. al.), Marc Hemeon of Design Inc., Wayne Sutton, Jeff Judge, Brian Roemmele, Chris Messina, the #Launch community, and a countless number of people who responded to my questions (see below). Also, a special shoutout to Paul English and Alexis Ohanian for the early push to get started. Thank you!

I’m building a conference platform for tech organizers, called SlidesUp. We’re about to give early access to these organizers and am looking for partners who share our vision:

We believe there should be an easier way to put on tech conferences and give attendees the best experience.

Do you know any likeminded conference organizers? Could you introduce me? They can sign up for early access at slidesup.com.

I also need help with branding and character illustration. I’ll be posting a project brief on Design Inc. Know any strong illustrators? I know you all can do much better than my 5-minute symbol and wordmark in Sketch!

Sharing my experiences building a new product

Building products in secret is hard/no fun. I’ll share more of my experiences as I build SlidesUp. What topics do you want to hear about next? In the meantime, check out how we launched our beta using Product Hunt Ship:

Follow me on Twitter at @KunalsLab or right here in Medium so you don’t miss the next article. Please let me know if you found the post valuable with your 👏. Thanks!