Dispatches from SXSW: Key Themes and noteworthy topics in health

I had heard that SXSW could feel overwhelming, but experiencing it firsthand proved it. With over a thousand sessions and many thousands of attendees, SXSW Interactive 2017 offered far too many compelling sessions and experiences to take in firsthand. Fortunately, our Mad*Pow team was able to cover a subset to unearth key themes for healthcare and technology innovation. Here are just a few.

Subverting technology applications for better outcomes. Although technology may be developed with a specific purpose in mind, savvy patients and providers can find ways to hack it to fit unmet needs. We saw an example of this in a panel on how we can help prevent a diabetes avalanche, where the presenters discussed challenges and opportunities specific to prevention through intervention studies and the use of technology in unique ways. Another panel talked about this subversion as “self-hacking” that can help people break out of behavior change ruts. Another dynamic to consider is how digital disruption will impact healthcare delivery in coming years, and how some health systems are embracing the change.

Trust is a product. Patient and consumer trust are huge factors in engagement. Trust matters on several levels. There’s basic data security: Will my information be safe? And then there’s trust around the process: Will this actually help me become healthier? Both are critical and were reflected in a number of sessions. Several sessions openly debated how experts who create health interventions should approach the ethical challenges of their work. That was the primary focus of Moral Issues in Designing for Behavior Change that Mad*Pow’s Amy Bucher co-presented with Raphaela O’Day of Johnson & Johnson, exploring the tension between imposing expert “must dos” and respecting patient autonomy. Other sessions on personalized medicine and genomics also explored ethical issues such as what needs to happen before genetic tests and treatments are made commercially available. We also saw a talk with the Privacy Officer of 23andMe discussing the evolving needs for privacy in emerging health technologies.

Behavior change belongs with design. Another theme, and one that we at Mad*Pow were excited to see, is that behavior change and design belong together. In addition to Amy and Raphaela’s session focusing on ethics in behavior change design, there were several others that directly explored how to apply behavior science principles to improving health. As one audience member in our session commented, it’s becoming clear that healthcare companies need to think beyond the direct medical intervention to incorporate behavior change if they want strong outcomes.

Using non-traditional types of data. A number of sessions talked about using non-traditional sources of data to bring patient or user experience into the understanding of health and health interventions. One panel likened this to treating patients the way we treat consumers, which includes focusing on factors beyond symptoms of illness such as quality of life. We also heard several speakers talk about how to bring subjective data into design, and how to help people make sense of their data to translate it into decision-making or behavior change.

We welcome our robot overlords.
Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and virtual reality (VR) have all been around for years but are becoming more commercially viable and widely available. Many SXSW sessions focused on exciting applications of these technology tools in healthcare, ranging from designing artificial intelligence intelligently to how AI and machine learning will change the way we eat to how VR can be used to safely and effectively treat mental health conditions. As we at Mad*Pow explore how we can work with these technologies in our own projects, it was valuable to learn from the work others have pioneered.

You know you’ve had a good conference experience when you leave with brains buzzing and ideas flowing. We can’t wait to reconnect with the fascinating people and ideas we found at this year’s SXSW.


By: Amy Bucher, Ashley Boyd

Want to offer your customers a better experience?

Let's work together: Contact Us Today

Contributed by:
Amy Bucher Behavior Change Design Director   Contact Amy
Ashley Boyd Business Development Director

Newsletter Sign Up

Mad*Pow HQ

27 Congress Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801

Office: 603.436.7177
Fax: 603.386.6608


179 Lincoln Street
Boston, MA 02111

Office: 617.426.7177


Complete Sale Inquiry Form


Sales: solutions
Press: communications

Get in Touch