Donahue: A Better Conference Backchannel from the Makers of Readability

The developers of Readability, the service that makes reading text online better by stripping sites down to their basics and allowing readers to just focus on the text, just launched their newest project at the SXSW conference in Austin. This new application, Donahue, provides conference attendees and presenters with a new way to interact during talks. The idea behind Donahue is based on the reality that the audience members at most tech conferences today often spend more time looking at their screens than at the presenters.

Sadly, the app isn’t available for anyone to use yet. Instead, Arc90 will continue to iterate on the ideas the team developed while building this tool for the SXSW presentation. The hope, though, is to release this as a full-blown tools in the future.

As Arc90’s Tim Meaney and Behavior Design‘s Christopher Fahey (the two companies collaborated in the development of this product) noted, great talks start conversations – and more often than not, these conversations today happen on social networks and sometimes not even in the room where the talk is being presented. Indeed, as Fahey pointed out, “speakers and audiences are becoming more disconnected from each other.” Partly this is due to the fact that the audience members are often paying more attention to their Twitter feeds than the presenters, but Fahey also pointed out that it would be wrong to blame the audience and the presenters for this.

Presentation  Donahue

To fix the conference experience, Donahue wants to help “empower the audience.” Many presentations today, said Fahey, suffer from the fact that the speakers too often try to hide what they really want to say. Donahue instead wants to ensure that the audience can hold the presenters accountable.

So what does this look like in practice?

Danhue bullet points

Donahue’s developers argue that bullet point-style presentations have outlived their usefulness, but more importantly, audiences and speakers need better tools to interact with each other. A conference backchannel – like Donahue – should be opt-in for both the audience and the speaker. Just putting up a big screen with tweets on the stage is not a good solution to this problem (mostly because it encourages too many snarky remarks) and Donahue hence doesn’t display tweets in the presenter view that can be shown on a projector.

In its current form, Donahue provides users with a two-pane view: the presentation slides on the left and a stream of related tweets from the audience on the right. Bringing these two together on one screen is imperative, as human beings are easily distracted and putting them into a different interface to tweet about a talk would make it too easy for an audience member to just focus on anything else but the talk.

Once the app is released, it will also include a Keynote-like interface for building slides.

With Donahue, the developers aimed to create a backchannel that blocks “irrelevant distractions while enabling relevant distractions.” Instead of having to switch back and forth between different apps, both presenters and audience members can see the slides and reactions simultaneously.

The app also keeps an archive of all the related tweets so that the conversation around the talk remains available even after the talk is over.

It’s important to note that Donahue does not provide those who are not in the audience with an audio or video feed – this is really meant to be a tool for those who are in the audience.