Jan 10

SxSW Interactive Speakers: Dishing It Up With Panel Speaker Lindsey Simon

Lindsey Simon The SxSW Interactive Festival is full of interesting speakers from throughout the technology spectrum. SxSW fans like you can choose who you want to hear from using a Panel Picker. Fortunately for me, I was able to speak to the man behind the picker himself, Lindsey Simon.

So I hear you work for some company called Google. How is that going for you?

It’s been a really eye-opening experience in lots of ways. I’m actually
working as a front-end engineer inside of the User Experience team, and that
has been a great opportunity to learn from folks with extensive experience
in doing user-centered research and design. It’s a very different approach
than what most startups go with, and also I bet why many of them don’t
succeed. It is often amazing to me how sometimes even a little bit of well
done research can make some substantial improvements to, or sometimes
justify the killing of, a project’s direction and interface.

You created the South by Southwest Interactive Panel Picker. Please
explain what this is and why it is so cool.

The SXSW Panel Picker was Hugh and Shawn at SXSW’s idea, and I’ve glued it
together for two years now. Both times, their goal has been to try to get
more feedback from the community about what kinds of panels and ideas they
most wanted to see at the upcoming SXSW. Pretty ballsy for an already
successful conference. If you’ve ever submitted panel ideas to most other
conferences, you know the drill – maybe you get a form letter back (if
you’re lucky) and then probably a form rejection letter – everything in
between is a total black hole. This is at least something different and
draws on the momentum that BarCamps all over the country have evidenced
exists – conferences should be about group participation and not wholly
one-way expert-to-masses sorts of things. That experience is more fun for

This year’s particular take on the panel picker was kind of funny for a few
reasons. When the SXSW folks told me that they wanted to go all out with
comments, star-voting, and login/registration for the picker it was like,
okay, this fun little project a year ago is going to be a full-on webapp
this time. Having recently made my Google transition and consequently become
a pretty happy Gmail user, I started thinking how similar the two things are
in a few ways. Comments are like email threads, Gmail has stars, etc.. So I
just started using the Gmail design as a frame for the development of the
panel picker. It made loads of decisions about visual design way easier than
the year before. It’s not like this kind of application needs to be in any
way revolutionary, so once it was all done, we just left the Gmail skin on
it as kind of a bit of an inside joke but mainly as an homage.

Your speech this year is called “Filching Design.” What do you mean by
this, and why would a design decide to pilfer or make off with the belongings of
other designers (sorry, had to look it up)?

This idea came directly out of the making of the SXSW Panel Picker this past
year, but there’s some history to it as well. When I was originally
developing Dishola, we started with all of the html, css, and layout
graphics from digg and built the site into that already-beautiful ui. Of
course we knew all along we’d go back and redo the design for Dishola, but
for a few months, it made it both easy on the eyes and in many ways easier
to develop. We didn’t waste any time haggling about typography, colors, look
and feel, etc.. We had a pretty well-functioning prototype that we could get
feedback on. It’s not like the social networking premise of Dishola was
revolutionary, and the UI didn’t need to be. I was focused on the idea – a
site which revolves around dishes instead of locations (restaurants). That
is the thing that makes Dishola different from yelp, citysearch, zagat,
etc… And by developing it in digg’s UI framework we were able to give our
testers, many of whom had never heard of digg anyhow, an immediate
impression that we were building a “professional” looking site. As such,
their comments were much more useful and on-topic I believe than if we’d
solicited feedback with it running in wireframes.

So when I found myself using the same approach for the Panel Picker this
year it seemed like it would be fun to talk about the good and bad of this
idea at SXSW. I suspect lots of web developers do this sort of thing from
time to time. It’s not really about stealing design, but borrowing UI
instead of thinking about it from scratch when appropriate. Luke
Wroblewski’s going to be talking about some of his research on form design,
and I think this plays right into the idea. “Don’t think about the visual
design of your form, think about what it’s designed for” – and pick the
visual design that most aptly suits this – and it doesn’t hurt that it is
based on loads of his lab research 😉

It’s worth noting that there are most certainly times where this approach
can be inappropriate and it can (rightly) be argued that it boxes you into
some paradigms before you should.

Is there anything in particular that you are looking forward to at SxSW
Interactive, or in Austin?

Camilla’s fish taco at Polvo’s, visiting with my Austin amigos, and drinking
some Fireman’s 4 from a tap.

Do you have any shameless plugs you would like to promote here? Go
ahead. We don’t mind.

I’m always trying to spread the word about Dishola.