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MeFi Academics: Describe the perfect conference web app
February 14, 2012 10:14 AM   Subscribe

MeFi academics: imagine you're attending a conference. Describe the your dream conference web app/website.

I'm working on a web-based app (with schedule, planner, maps, etc) for an upcoming academic conference. I'm looking for things you've loved or hated about conference apps you've used in the past, as well as any wondrous ideas that exist only in your head.

What features are essential?
What features do you never use?
What are things you find frustrating at conferences that good technology might help to resolve?

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING:
The web app will be designed to work on a broad range of devices.
The data will be real time (that is, it will not have outdated times or rooms)
No ads, flashy graphics, or UI gimmicks.

AND ALSO:
Funds and tech aren't infinite. For example, we can't embed RFID tags on everyone's badge and get their exact location inside the building.

NIFTY ASIDE:
Are you familiar with QR codes? Would you be willing to use QR codes to do things like check into presentations, view upcoming presentations in a room, add event to your planner, or go directly to a discussion forum?
posted by Deathalicious to Education (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ooh, this sounds fun! So I'm gonna ramble! This is mostly going to be in my head, because I've never seen a really worthwhile application. (But then, I haven't gone to a ton of large conferences.)

I guess this is obvious, but the killer app would be an interactive talk/workshop scheduler. I'd like to be able to go through a catalog of descriptions for talks/workshops/other sessions and check a box next to each that sounds interesting to me. Then I'd pull up a schedule tab and see when all the talks I checked are scheduled. (I wouldn't want to worry about this as I was picking sessions.) From there, I can resolve conflicts and finalize my desired schedule. The map should also tie into my schedule, as in, "Go here for your next poster session!"

At large conferences, the dilemma is too much choice. It would be great if, as you're constructing your schedule, there could be a session suggestion feature: People with your highlighted talks also like... This could either be crowdsourced (which would suck for the first 25% of people) or done through abstract keywords.

QR tags are a nice idea, but a little gimmicky for something where a printed list would work just as well, and quicker. They would, however, be useful for, say, name tags, where one would (with permission) take a picture of someone's QR tag on their name badge, and have all their contact info, like a virtual business card exchange. (Maybe it should be on the back...) Same thing for badges next to posters and the like, which would get the author's contact info, plus a copy of the poster or additional data.

I'm a foursquare fiend, so I like the idea of checking into presentations, but there would have to be motivation to do so, especially for conferencegoers less tech-driven than me (or, I'm guessing, you). Maybe (and this is a little off-the-wall) a contest to motivate people to use these features? A prize for collecting the most name badge codes, or the most check-in codes, or the most poster codes?
posted by supercres at 10:32 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you're offering a schedule-builder, allow the user to select multiple talks occurring during the same time period. Many people will want 1-2 backups if it is a large conference and their first session choice is full (or turns out not to be interesting.)
posted by ryanshepard at 10:36 AM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Make sure that people can actually read the schedule on their phone. (This goes for all conferences, but I am thinking specifically of a tech conference I was at where the schedule was optimized for a gigantic monitor and I was trying to read the name of the session in very fine print...)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:41 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess this is obvious, but the killer app would be an interactive talk/workshop scheduler.

This is a damn good idea, especially if you've got certain sessions that repeat at multiple times throughout the conference.

Also great would be a one-click "What Should I Do Now?" feature that could direct you to a session or event with broad appeal with broad appeal for when you have a swath of unexpected free time.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:45 AM on February 14, 2012


Wifi coverage usually sucks at conferences, so make sure it works without wifi.

National Communication Assocation had a decent app this year - maps to each of the rooms and a shared note area.

I'd like to see session specific hashtags in it too.
posted by k8t at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2012


Make sure there's Wi-Fi. Advertise how to access it. I have been to conferences with spotty coverage and it basically makes the app useless if you can't get on it.

I don't personally like QR codes. Seems like overkill when all you really need is a URL.
posted by kpmcguire at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


- Room maps.
- Searchable proceedings. DOIs if you can get that done in time.
- Links in the schedule to each speakers' paper to the conference proceedings, or at least their abstracts. PDFs for papers at least, posters would be great too. QR links for this would be pure magic.
- Full contact info available for at least primary authors/speakers.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This may seem obvious, but make sure there's a way to link a panel title with the names of those on the panel - too often I find myself digging through a program trying to figure out who's actually speaking on a panel listed in the schedule.

It would be great if there were a link from the panel/schedule to the a floor map indicating where that panel is happening.

Bonus: a map with all the conference-recommended hotels, restaurants, etc., and travel info.

A built-in Twitter feed with the corresponding hashtag.

A "bulletin board" for posting conference logistic questions (sharing taxis, lost jacket, etc.).

I might use QR codes, but they're not essential to me.
posted by Ms. Toad at 11:01 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Besides being readable and suitably formatted for a small screen, searching by author/speaker, keywords (abstract text search) and institution would be helpful. Also being able to sort out sessions by type (symposium vs. poster session) and, if this is for a large scientific conference for instance, being able to add posters to your itinerary arranged/dropped into time slots by when the poster presenter is scheduled to be standing at the poster, not just when the poster is, erm, posted.

Twitter feed for the meeting (so simply a feed for posts containing #meetinghashtag) within the app could be fun.

Can you describe the size of the meeting or type of conference you had in mind? that might help with suggestions...
posted by NikitaNikita at 11:02 AM on February 14, 2012


Take a look at the CHI 2011 app - I found myself using it quite a bit and didn't use the other web-based conference tools that were also available.

One feature I really liked was being able to "bookmark" a particular session or paper I was interested in attending.

I've never found myself using QR tags.
posted by needled at 11:07 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are different kinds of conferences. Some are for work that's basically already done; my sense is that physical science types have more of these, where the proceeding itself is kind of a publication. Others are for work that isn't finished, where you're hoping to get comments that will help you on the way to eventual publication.

My own field basically only has the latter kind. For that kind of conference, I really, really, REALLY dislike being asked to upload the paper so it can be web-accessible. I don't want my incomplete work to be globally searchable forever. I especially don't want people finding, reading, and citing an outdated version of a paper.

So for me and my field, either don't put papers online or make sure that the links will be removed promptly after the conference.

Otherwise:

Essential: A pdf of the program with panelists' email addresses. Nothing else is essential.

Never use: Almost anything else. I dislike query-based interfaces to the program if there's no pdf online. Why be tethered to a connection when a downloaded pdf would work?

Are you familiar with QR codes?

Yes.

Would you be willing to use QR codes to do things like check into presentations

As a panelist? I could tolerate that. As an audience member? I'd find that level of even attempted monitoring offensive.

view upcoming presentations in a room, add event to your planner, or go directly to a discussion forum?

No, no, and no.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2012


Optimal scheduling for concurrent sessions, especially if travel time between venues could be built in. I just want to tick all the talks/activities that I a) must and b) would like to attend, and something to run the IP scheduling program that outputs the optimal itinerary that means I see the most of them. It could be a heuristic and run on the phone, I guess.
posted by cromagnon at 11:25 AM on February 14, 2012


ROU_Xenophobe: Essential: A pdf of the program with panelists' email addresses. Nothing else is essential.

Never use: Almost anything else. I dislike query-based interfaces to the program if there's no pdf online. Why be tethered to a connection when a downloaded pdf would work?
"

May have more to do with the kind of conference, but ours has dozens of concurrent sessions that are often subject to schedule changes, so a PDF would be out of date very quickly. In a case like that, would a downloadable HTML page listing all presentations be a good substitute?

ROU_Xenophobe: Would you be willing to use QR codes to do things like check into presentations

As a panelist? I could tolerate that. As an audience member? I'd find that level of even attempted monitoring offensive."

I find this interesting. I never even though of it as monitoring -- just allowing attendees to get better feedback about what future sessions they'd want to attend, or letting their colleagues know where they are in the conference.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:31 AM on February 14, 2012


I'd never use the QR codes I don't think. The interactive scheduler would be the dream. If I could go through the abstracts ahead of time, check a box or double tap the ones I want (and be able to do this from a laptop as well, which would synch with my phone), and then have it show me what my schedule is (with overlaps allowed, as noted) - that would be absolute gold.

The challenge at big conferences is to have a route through all the talks. Something that built me a schedule, told me the room numbers, and had a link to the abstracts would be great.

Then - if that could be printed out (I know!) so I can have a piece of paper on which I can also take notes, or at least to follow my schedule without always squinting at my phone or having my phone on during a talk - that would be cool. Especially if I could send it to a printer on site from my phone or laptop, and just grab my paper and go.

I don't like online papers either. I think they are usually an effort by the Chairs to make sure people are ready, and perhaps to seed a special journal issue or book. I don't want to see those while I am at the conference.

I agree with ROU that the monitoring aspect of checking in is creepy. Some like it, some don't, so don't make it an essential part of the functionality.
posted by Rumple at 11:41 AM on February 14, 2012


Frankly, the bar is pretty low. A simple clean website where all the relevant information is easy to find would be better than what I'm used to. Links to full abstracts and papers where available would be nice. An interactive scheduler would be very nice. My number one frustration is not being able to quickly find very simple basic information -- who's talking when, what room, where is it. How do I register, how much does it cost, what are the deadlines. Where is the venue and how do I get there if I'm staying elsewhere, and where is the registration desk. You'd be amazed how hard it can be to find this stuff even at long-running ostensibly well-organized conferences.

I wouldn't participate in a QR scheme, wouldn't check twitter, don't really see a need to interact at that level. I go to the talks I want to go to, I talk to the people I need to talk to on breaks, I go back to the hotel and crash, that's kind of it. I've never used a conference app in the past; most of my conferences are smallish, I guess, and haven't provided them.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:51 AM on February 14, 2012


All the papers, online, and accessible by anyone. I want to share this stuff with people who might not be at the conference.

An official hashtag for Twitter.

Great, no-fail wireless Internet access in all of the conference rooms. This is essential. No one will use your site if the wireless is crummy. It's really the only thing I and most of my colleagues care about at conferences. Well, that and plentiful, good coffee.
posted by k8lin at 11:53 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


A place for presenters to upload slides is nice, too.
posted by k8lin at 11:54 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rumple: I don't like online papers either. I think they are usually an effort by the Chairs to make sure people are ready, and perhaps to seed a special journal issue or book. I don't want to see those while I am at the conference.

In contrast, it would be exceptional for a conference not to have pdfs of final papers in my field of study. There are special provisions made for those who are limited by confidentiality or legal restrictions to speak without a paper, but that's the general rule for the physical/earth science community I work in.

Interim results are usually reported, if at all, as posters. Journals will refuse articles if the results have been previously published, so presentation at conferences usually waits until the final article is written or at least accepted.

Know your audience, is the answer, I guess.

As I said above, I'd use QRs only as a quick link to an author's paper/abstract---go to a poster, then use the QR to get more information, the full paper, for instance. The idea of using a QR to "check in" is weird. The idea of taking attendance at sessions is rather creepy.
posted by bonehead at 11:56 AM on February 14, 2012


Option to look at a list of attendees and make notes next to their names. I'd make notes about contacting people after the conference.

Option to sign up for attending dinners with colleagues. One conference I attend involves multiple restaurant options by topic, for dinner, with limited slots available for each restaurant. Having to make my way back to the sign in table by a certain time is usually inconvenient.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:02 PM on February 14, 2012


bonehead - point taken, the OP should know their audience as rule number one. (Your name suggests you're a fellow archaeologist but I take it you're not.)
posted by Rumple at 12:04 PM on February 14, 2012


If your fancy website generated a saveable pdf, that would be great. It really is true that conferences often saturate their wifi capabilities. Generally I want a searchable / indexed list of talk titles / abstracts. Optional ordering by time would be nice, as occasionally I realize that this promising seeming speaker isn't going anywhere and would like to recover into something decent.

Aside from truly huge conferences, these things are dominated by a piece of paper, and I often find myself using the paper proceedings.

Many people don't have personal websites with CVs (which astonishes me), but if I'm going to check out a talk in a field where I'm not very familiar, it's helpful to be able to easily look up the speakers. A space for personal website attached to the abstract is therefore useful.

Are you familiar with QR codes? Would you be willing to use QR codes to do things like check into presentations, view upcoming presentations in a room, add event to your planner, or go directly to a discussion forum?

Kinda, and No. Solution looking for a problem. Do people really want to forum discuss instead of paying attention? If I'm not going to pay attention I usually have work to do. I would also be pretty shy about discussing the speaker's topic right there in public and without necessarily having had time to think about it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:24 PM on February 14, 2012


I was told by someone that knows that conference wifi can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wtf? Fu hotels.
posted by k8t at 12:34 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


a robot made out of meat: "Are you familiar with QR codes? Would you be willing to use QR codes to do things like check into presentations, view upcoming presentations in a room, add event to your planner, or go directly to a discussion forum?

Kinda, and No. Solution looking for a problem. Do people really want to forum discuss instead of paying attention? If I'm not going to pay attention I usually have work to do. I would also be pretty shy about discussing the speaker's topic right there in public and without necessarily having had time to think about it.
"

The idea would be that the QR code for this would be posted by the door on the way out; attendees would be encouraged to comment on or discuss a presentation they'd just seen by using the code.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:38 PM on February 14, 2012


The idea would be that the QR code for this would be posted by the door on the way out; attendees would be encouraged to comment on or discuss a presentation they'd just seen by using the code.

I'd ignore it and I would bet everyone else would too. On my way out I am generally headed directly somewhere else and would maybe sneak online for an email or two if I had a spare minute, at best; no time to compose comments, and if I had something important to say I would say it live in the Q&A where I know people will hear it. I am certainly not going to save a QR code so I can come back to a web forum later -- what later? If I am lucky enough to have free time I am probably drinking beer or else collapsed in bed; I find these conferences very draining.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:59 PM on February 14, 2012


May have more to do with the kind of conference, but ours has dozens of concurrent sessions that are often subject to schedule changes, so a PDF would be out of date very quickly. In a case like that, would a downloadable HTML page listing all presentations be a good substitute?

I suppose, but a better substitute would be to stop changing the schedule.

I find this interesting. I never even though of it as monitoring -- just allowing attendees to get better feedback about what future sessions they'd want to attend, or letting their colleagues know where they are in the conference.

Okay, monitoring is over the top, I guess. But still... I hate all those extrovert-enabling things that result in me being told things like "Just check in on the foursquare and I'll IM you on facebook and you and me and Susie Derkins from Wottsamatta U can all conference call and blah whatever." Burn it with fire.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:05 PM on February 14, 2012


I work in higher ed, and the past few conferences I've gone to (for both professionals and students) made use of the Guidebook app and Twitter hashtags. They also provided the PDF version of the conference book available to download before the conference, but the Guidebook app pushed updates as the conference organizers made them. They had certain people assigned to Tweet things throughout the conference to get the Twitter feed going, and used some program (not sure of the name) to display recent hashtagged tweets on the big screens before the large keynotes began. The students especially loved seeing what they wrote in front of everyone.

We also used Foursquare to check in, but that was for people who were already Foursquare fanatics (and several of us got into an informal contest to see who could get the most mayorships during the conference). They didn't do anything organized with Foursquare other than to tell people they created checkins for them.

After the conference, they posted the presentation slides and handouts for download on their website. That was nice for the times where you had too many presentations during a session and wanted to get the info from all of them but couldn't.

I see QR codes in my field, but I don't see too many people stopping to scan them. I know on my phone I don't have the greatest app for QR codes, and it's quicker for me to type in a website instead of get to the app and scan a code (but that could be industry specific, so YMMV).
posted by MultiFaceted at 1:22 PM on February 14, 2012


I agree with most of Rumple's comments. Definitely want a scheduler with overlaps allowed. A map showing the rooms would be great although it would be even better if the room was listed by each talk (not just the section title) with a link to directions if I wanted them. All in a printable format.

I still think it's kind of rude to be on one's laptop during a presentation (though I do it) and turn off my phone for presentations because I don't want it making noises (battery dying beeps have happened to me too often (there are not enough plugs in hotel rooms or conference centres!)). Plus writing notes keeps me paying attention. So definitely a printable output (including room numbers! This was missing at the last conference I went to).

I have no idea what QR codes are. Those black and white square thingies? Yeah, my phone doesn't do that. It makes me feel like a loser with a crappy phone.

Wi-fi for sure.

Some way of facilitating socializing would be great. Sometimes I'd like to meet new people but I never know where people are or what to talk about. The check-in doesn't seem like it'd work exactly right because I don't use any of those programs (and don't really want to let people know that me personally is hanging out somewhere).
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:11 PM on February 14, 2012


I would like:

Easy registration before the event. Easy sign in at the event. (Consider having a board with a list of attendees by the registration desk and mark them as they register?)

A really easy to find venue. Good signage.

Pastries with coffee in the morning. Drinking water at all times, not just tea or coffee, not just hot water, but drinking water.

Big name badges (that's their name, not their institution). There will be people on the attendance list I want to speak to, reading their name badge is the easy way to spot them, the less close to every person in the room I have to get the better.

I don't want to be promised the world then turn up and there are only 15 people in attendance.

Somewhere I can socialise with other academics after dinner. If this is a convenient pub I have no issue with that.

Accommodation should be close to everything else and preferably be en suite.

If the conference is a long way from the rest of the world and I have to go there the night before there should preferably be some sort of event the night before the conference begins. Part of organising this should be to make it easy to meet the other attendees on a relaxed basis.

Papers should be available online before the event and easy to find after the event.

Do not try to bash too many papers/presentations into a single session.

If you know your topic then you know who cannot be trusted to stick to schedule. Do not accept papers from the people who you know will piss on your timings.

Consider having a poster side event for PhD students.

Wifi for sure. Make sure eduroam is available but preferably make it generally as easy to access as possible for attendees.

Provide a list of some things to do for entertainment local to the conference. This may be useful for attendees if its a longer conference but may also help bring in partners which can be a deciding factor in whether someone comes to the event or not. (Seriously, I know plenty of academics whose holidays are based around conference availability.)

QR codes? Frankly I do not give a shit. I know what they are but I suspect many fellow attendees do not. I can access them but probably will not. I think most other attendees will not access them also. Do not get hung up on techno bullshit because it seems fashionable.
posted by biffa at 4:33 PM on February 14, 2012


An option to share contact info, if you want to opt in. Something where you can look up the other person, hit a button, and you both now have each other's contact info. Not a big fan of business cards.

An option to export the conference schedule to another calendar platform (iCal, gCal).
posted by shinyshiny at 4:42 PM on February 14, 2012


biffa: "Pastries with coffee in the morning. Drinking water at all times, not just tea or coffee, not just hot water, but drinking water. "

Wow guys! Some of you have a greatly exaggerated concept of what web apps are capable of providing!

Unfortunately by the very nature of the conference we get a lot of new and different presenters each year, so knowing who will or won't be reliable isn't quite as predictable (we only really can predict the invited speakers, and we don't invite speakers who are unreliable). There are dozens of presentations going on during the entire conference so unfortunately some of the controls you can put into place for smaller conferences just aren't possible.

The general consensus is that people don't like QR codes, but unfortunately people don't like long URLs either. I'll probably put the URLs underneath but not sure either will be appealing:
Scan this QR code
[QR CODE]
or go to this URL:
http://mobile.domain.org/confname/rooms/1
Basically, the riddle is how to let people find out quickly what presentation is taking place in what room right then and there (or in the next hour) without requiring them to either browse through the entire website, or entering a long URL that points directly to the room (we could use URL shorteners but this introduces the possibility of typos). If QR codes were used, it would only be for this purpose -- as a substitue for long, hard to remember URLs.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:14 PM on February 14, 2012


I recently attended a conference that utilized Follow Me and EventLink. It allowed me to schedule more than one session at a time, which was important in case my first choice was full. It provided push updates for last minute schedule changes, a few advertisements from vendors, and a map, although the map was very tiny and not very helpful.

Once I selected the sessions I wanted to attend, I was provided with a daily schedule with room numbers. I never needed to consult the conference program.

Each session had its own place to take notes and an email button so I could email the notes to myself. The app worked without internet connection but for full functionality, wifi or 3G was required. It worked on my ipad and iphone but I did wish that I could have synced them so that I could look on either device to see my schedule. It also listed all the vendors in the exhibit hall with their contact info.

It was free and it was on the App Store. I had never used an event app before and I liked it much better than carrying around a program that I constantly had to flip through to figure out where I wanted to go. This was a conference with about 2500 attendees at the Austin convention center, so I'm not sure what you consider big.

As far as the QR code, most conferences that I've attended have a sign posted outside the door of the session so you know what's going on, so I'm not sure how helpful that would be.

Unfortunately, the app did not provide donuts or coffee.
posted by tamitang at 8:21 PM on February 14, 2012


As a poor graduate student who has gone to like 5 or 6 conferences without a smartphone, I would feel quite excluded if there were QR codes. Not that they wouldn't be great, but if you go with that sort of thing, you should create hashtags or something that can be looked up manually.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:09 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Basically, the riddle is how to let people find out quickly what presentation is taking place in what room right then and there (or in the next hour) without requiring them to either browse through the entire website, or entering a long URL that points directly to the room (we could use URL shorteners but this introduces the possibility of typos). If QR codes were used, it would only be for this purpose -- as a substitue for long, hard to remember URLs.

What people are saying is that this is a special case of looking up what's going on in ANY room. I should be able to just enter a room number, not enter a url. If it was a piece of paper I would flip to an index with room numbers. If it was a pdf I would search for the text "Room: $thisroom" until I came to this time.

The idea would be that the QR code for this would be posted by the door on the way out; attendees would be encouraged to comment on or discuss a presentation they'd just seen by using the code.

I would also be extremely unlikely to use that option. As others have said, I have another that I am going to right now. I'm unlikely to make substantive comments unless I'm tenured and cranky. If the person has a paper / abstract on the web, I would like to be able to find it, and bookmark it for later.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:04 AM on February 15, 2012


a robot made out of meat: "I would also be extremely unlikely to use that option. As others have said, I have another that I am going to right now. I'm unlikely to make substantive comments unless I'm tenured and cranky. If the person has a paper / abstract on the web, I would like to be able to find it, and bookmark it for later."

If there was a QR code that let you automatically bookmark the presentation(s) you'd just seen, would that be appealing?
posted by Deathalicious at 1:24 PM on February 15, 2012


Just scanning through the posts, not sure if anyone mentioned this yet:

One of the biggest advantages of a conference is to allow attendees with similar interests to find eachother.

It'd be nice if the webapp could help facilitate this, either by allowing users to create spontaneous meetups of their own, or maybe a user can say after a particularly inspiring talk:
inspired by X talk, looking to collaborate with Y, come chat w/me at the coffee shop
or something like that.

Another nice feature might be to use smartphones to take questions: so during the talk people tweet/text/physically write their questions and a moderator collects them and uses them to expedite the Q/A process so more questions get answered
posted by nondescript at 7:54 PM on February 15, 2012


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