Under The Microscope

Usability Nightmare: The My.SXSW iPhone App

South by Southwest, or SXSW, is a set of festivals and conferences for film, music, and technology (‘interactive’) held in Austin, Texas. While the music portion is likely the most famous, SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) is also quite large, and gaining steam. Perhaps most famously, Twitter first gained traction on the web during SxSW 2007. Thousands of designers, developers, and technologists come to SXSWi.

This year, there’s an iPhone application for SXSW called my.SXSW.

The app's homescreen

To put it delicately, the app has some issues.

Schedule Filtering

When you first open the app, you’ll likely want to look at the schedule so you can mark off what you plan to attend. If you know the name of a session, you can just enter it into the search field. For instance, you may wish to see “Marketing Strategies for Social Wait Now I’m Lost”. You don’t remember the exact name though, so you type in ‘strategies’:

Horrible Search

“Oh jeez”, you realize, “it’s a first-word filter?” Indeed it is. That’s not search, and it’s not very useful.

Radio Button

While looking at an event such as “Online Advertising: Losing the Race to the Bottom”, you can indicate you’re planning to attend, so it will be added to your own customized schedule. But…how?

The 'No' Radio Button
The initial screen, before you’ve added the session

You might stare at this for a good 30 seconds, because you thought it was still loading. Nope! That single radio button? That’s what you need to tap.

The 'Yes' Radio Button
The screen after you’ve tapped ‘No’

Are you going? If yes, tap ‘No’.

Time Zones

Ok, you finally found your sessions and added them to your schedule, but when are they? You know you’re getting in Friday afternoon around 4, and the first session you want to see, Battledecks 2010, is right around then. Hey, there it is, and it doesn’t start until 4:30 – perfect, you can just make that!

Time Zones

Well, no, not really. You see, when you opened the application, you were in Boston and the Eastern time zone. SXSW, however, is in Austin and the Central time zone, an hour behind. So, once you get to Austin, you’ll learn that the session was actually at 3:30 PM local time.

Yes, the application shifted the times for your current time zone. This is likely an artifact of never testing outside of Central time. Nevertheless, it’s still incredibly wrong and actively harmful.


“Hey,” you think, “I had to make some crazy account with ‘Dub’ just to use this app. I should see if I can tell folks I won’t be able to make Battledecks. I’ll just go to that messaging area”:

No Messaging


I first saw this before the show, so I thought the issue was that I hadn’t yet checked in. After I picked up my badge, I tried again, and no dice. Apparently, messaging simply doesn’t work, period.


One lesson here is that a simple but well-done web app like SitBy.us can be vastly superior to a full-fledged but terrible iPhone application. SitBy.Us provides everything you need, and nothing you don’t, and it even works with your Twitter account, instead of requiring yet another account. I can only hope SitBy.Us is used at many more conferences in the future.

Another lesson is that if you’re going to make an application for thousands of designers and developers, it probably shouldn’t suck.

There are many more issues, from the fact that it can’t seem to keep a profile picture to the schedule not auto-scrolling down or hiding past events to the updates downloading every launch, but you’ve seen enough. Let’s just log out.


Of for the love o-Well, at least they understood just how emphatic the “Yes” button needs to be.

28 Responses to “Usability Nightmare: The My.SXSW iPhone App”

  1. meeech says:

    kinda unfortunate. we were all pretty underwhelmed with the app.

  2. Toy Needle says:

    Oh my.

  3. bMan says:

    Somewhere, Jef Raskin is weeping right now….

  4. Anonymous says:


  5. Ben Reubenstein says:

    The thing that kills me is the background image. Scrolling is making me sea sick.

    Technical note: looks like they utilized the three20 framework released by facebook (http://github.com/facebook/three20). We’ve used that to kickstart a few apps. The UI Elements help, but it is what you do with them that counts.

  6. Megan V says:

    I think the app has been really helpful and made it much easier for me to plan my schedule. There wasn’t an app last year!! I had no trouble figuring out how to click to add event to my schedule! THANK YOU!!!

  7. Chris Hopkinson says:

    Thanks for the feedback. We’re aware of the issues you discussed and actually spoke about many of them during our panel today http://my.sxsw.com/events/event/7524. It was awesome to work with the SXSW team and The Social Collective on the app and we’re looking forward to taking what we learned and improving on it next year. Please feel free to email any additional thoughts to me directly. Thanks!

    Chris Hopkinson

  8. Ross Hill says:

    There is a lot of opportunity here – are you guys going to volunteer to make next years app?

  9. BobTD says:

    As it says on the app’s creators web site: “Let’s face it, building mobile apps are hard.”


  10. Fred Brunel says:

    I can’t believe these guys released that. The “event details” screen is terrible, it does not even respect any Apple design guidelines. Clearly it’s a “web design” ported to the iPhone. Never do that.

  11. Chris Hopkinson says:

    Thanks for the feedback. We’re aware of the issues you had and are working to improve the app for next year. We were thrilled to be chosen by SXSW and The Social Collective and look forward to making the app even better. Feel free to email any additional comments to me. Thanks!

    Chris Hopkinson

  12. Florian Albrecht says:

    Even better is that international users were not able to use the “my” features at all, unless of course they were able to provide a 10 digit phone number on first usage.

    Have to agree with the article and most comments: creating such an app is not easy, it takes lots of thinking, effort and therefore money.
    Why not have a competition for creating the app for next year so Paul and all the great interaction designers attending SXSW could submit their ideas ;-)

  13. bud says:

    Really, all it is at its heart is a front end to a scheduling app. You could pull the same calendars (and their constant frequent updates as schedules change) to iCal or your Google Calendar, THEN you could keep only those bits on the calendar you choose to attend (but at the same time, losing the alternate choices).

    It was still sort of in the planning stages as late as October of last year.

    And it might actually be of more use to those attending the Film or Music portions of SXSW, where the interface might make more sense, possibly. It still has a few days of use, for this year.

    Beyond the schedule unique to the conference, does it add anything that you might not already have in some other app? Bumping for contact info (or mere emailing), tweeting (or Direct Messaging) the secret party locations, or an other off the cuff happening?

    It isn’t unusual for an app meant for a specific use to not necessarily fit as well as a more general app might. The GPS I get with my rental car is often not as useful as Google Maps on my iPhone, although Google Maps is often off by a full block, at least it can find an address.

  14. cm says:

    Let me make sure I understand the blog post. You get an app for free that makes it easier to navigate a specific conference, and you whine about it like it is something you paid for that you’ll use everyday for months or years?

    Just checking.

  15. slimjim says:

    Actually I think the point is that the app was supposed to make it easier to navigate to a specific conference but it was so bad that it actually made it harder.

    Pointing out such issues could possibly help other developers make the same mistakes and may even help the developer of this app improve their product. And lookee here, it may well do that. See Chris Hopkinson’s response.

  16. Sam Andrews says:

    CM – I don’t think you do understand the blog post; it’s more that if you’re designing an app for what is now predominantly a festival about interactions, the interaction better be good!

  17. slimjim says:

    oops, I meant help other devlopers avoid the same mistakes.

  18. slimjim says:

    In fact, now that I’ve gone to the devloper’s site and read this:
    “The DUB platform is the only comprehensive and intuitive mobile application platform for associations, events and higher education.”
    I’m sure they would appreciate as much input as possible to actually achieve that lofty goal.

  19. Paul Kafasis says:

    Megan V: If it worked for you, great. But for me and many others, it was so problematic that it was worse than not having an app at all.

    Ross Hill: It’s not exactly our problem space, but I’d certainly take an hour or two to test out next year’s app, and provide a useful critique ahead of time.

    Chris Hopkinson: Glad to hear from you! I’ll be interested to see next year’s app, as there’s certainly the potential for this to be very useful. This year, however, the app just didn’t cut it for many folks.

    Florian Albrecht: Ouch. There are lots of “edge cases” (time zones, international users) which I’d bet are hitting hundreds of people, large percentages of attendees. It’s certainly not an easy problem, but many potential improvements are both obvious and needed.

    bud: Well, I used it for Film as well, and didn’t get any more out of it.

    As far as features, what I’d like is the schedule, useful maps (of each venue), and actually, what SitBy.Us had – info on where my friends are. It doesn’t seem to have any way to share contact info (which would be smart), no messaging, no truly current news that I saw.

    You said “It isn’t unusual for an app meant for a specific use to not necessarily fit as well as a more general app might.” I find that interesting. I think a specifically tailored app, for SXSW, would be the best possibility. It could be fully tailored to SXSW. From that, you might also be able to extract a general app, to be used elsewhere.

    cm: Not exactly. There’s a companion app, to go with a conference which costs a good deal of money to attend. It’s an official part of SXSW, and thus, paid for, indirectly.

    As far as using it every day for months? No. But I’ve used SitBy.us every day for this week, quite a bit. It’s not a minor thing, for attendees.

    slimjim: You nailed it – it was intended to make things easier, but wound up being problematic enough that using it was harmful. Hopefully, SXSW 2011 will be better.

  20. Mike says:

    “building mobile apps ARE hard?” Objective-C isn’t the only language they have trouble with, it seems…

  21. Adam says:

    It gets worse – looks like there are schill commenters (employees of Dub?).

    Screencaps taken, will post blog link in a followup…

  22. Mike2 says:

    Compare this with the conference that was built for the Mix conference (MIX10 on the AppStore) which made it easy to find sessions by topic, by time slot, by speaker, provided maps of the rooms and the city as well as an easy way of registering which talks you were attending.

    The home screen is also useful as the conference develops, it shows the current sessions happening now, and upcoming conferences

  23. Karl Adam says:

    You’re being generous in regards to how bad this application is. I went ahead and downloaded the MIX10 application and surprisingly, it’s built using C# and .NET using the MonoTouch tookit, and is head and shoulders far better than the my.SXSW application.

  24. Scott Macrae says:

    Usable: Sitby.us
    Not: My.SXSW

  25. Fabien says:

    Those shouldn’t be apps. They should be mobile websites using html5. At least it would work on any mobile. The app itself does not bring anything.

  26. Chris Hopkinson says:

    We understand the issues folks had and really do appreciate the constructive feedback. There’s a lot of other people’s tech in the app (my.sxsw, sxsw and Mapquest), which always complicates things.

    I supposed we could’ve shelved the app entirely, but we wouldn’t have learned much from a user perspective. I’m confident, given the feedback we received and having longer than a two months to integrate and build, next year’s app will be better.


    Chris Hopkinson

  27. Nicholas Shaff says:

    Couldn’t agree more, I ditched the SXSW app about two days in and instead used sitby.us. The SXSW app wasn’t catching everything I signed up for on the web and the radio button thing had me confused for a bit before I figured it out by looking at an event I’d already selected to attend. The constant slow reloading of the entire list got on my nerves quickly.

    Sitby.us was faster, cleaner and much easier to work with on my 2G iPhone the whole weekend.

  28. Carlo says:

    Why was this an app at all? Why not a mobile web site open to any device?

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