09 January 2013

Science Online (if you’re in the lobby): SICB 2013 and the Internet

The SICB conference this year was probably a good example of how ambivalent scientific societies are to the online world.

First, the only place you could get wi-fi was in the hotel lobby. It was not a long way to the lobby from some rooms, but live-tweeting was difficult. I could have used my phone to tweet, but it’s much easier with a tablet or laptop and a wi-fi connection.

The issue, I learned, is that the hotel does not provide wi-fi to it conference rooms. It is a separate company. While other conference services can be negotiated with the hotel, who has the carrot of many guests filling their rooms, this one cannot. And the wi-fi provider cares not one whit how many people come to the hotel.

If I remember right, it would have cost $35,000 to provide wi-fi connections throughout all the rooms for about half the attendees. This underestimates the scale, however, because it assumes each attendee has only one connection. A phone and a tablet connected through wi-fi is two connections.

Apparently, SICB is considering raising the registration fees to subsidize wi-fi connections if members are willing to foot the bill for the connections.

More good news was that this was the first conference I have ever been to that had a dedicated app for phones and tablets and such. This was, for a society that has been reluctant to embrace the online world, surprisingly progressive. Members were extremely interested in the app.

More bad news came in the actual usability of the app. There were many good ideas, but they were often poorly executed.

Among the issues...

The sorting of the events was made it almost impossible to find events. After “1” came - not 2 - but 11, 12, 13... then 100, 101, 101... and then 2. This is strict alphabetical order as a computer understands it, but was hell for people.

Although the apps required you to log in, if you had it on two devices, the accounts did not sync. If you added an event on your phone, it would not later show up on your tablet.

Updates from the conference organizers sent through the app went to a region called “Archived” rather than “Inbox”. There was no clear signal on the home page when there was a new message.

Maps of the hotel never showed up on the Android phone version of the app I was using.

I could not search for events on my phone (again, Android) in the “Discover” tab.

Some of the critical details for event listings, like time and room, were set in tiny light grey letters, which was not the easiest thing to read. I could accept this for the summary, but not the main listing with the abstract.

Short talk titles had the advantage of their listings being set in much bigger point size. Long titles were rescaled so more of the words would fit on one line.

And there was the irony of having an app that made extensive use of Internet at a conference where wi-fi was not provided in any of the conference rooms,

All of this made sense when I learned that SICB attendees were more or less being used as beta testers for the app.

Other observations:

  • On the plus side, many people joined the society’s Facebook page in the few days before the conference.
  • On the negative side, the society's Twitter account has been used exactly once: to send a tweet saying “test.”
  • On the negative side, those people who were tweeting from the conference couldn’t agree on a hashtag. I was using #sicb13, but many (possibly most) were using #sicb, but I also saw #sicb2013. A strong official recommendation from the society’s Twitter feed would have helped.

I am hoping for much better things when the conference returns to Texas next year.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...
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moose said...

Great post...

The app was certainly a disaster, but the thought was nice and there is lots of room for improvement.

Free Wi-fi would have been great, for sure. But not positive if it would be worth an extra $15 in conference fees. It's fairly easy to turn a smartphone to a wifi hotspot, so I was able to type on my tablet with no trouble other than battery issues. It just occurred to me that a meetup the first day to explain how to do this might have helped a lot.

Dushyanth Maguluru said...

Hi Zen,

I am the lead developer of the SICB Android app built by Zerista, Inc. We sincerely apologize for the issues you have experienced and really appreciate your feedback.

I will address some of the issues mentioned in your post:

1.) "The sorting of the events": I feel your pain and I apologize for the inconvenience this issue has caused you. Though it is late, we will make sure the issue is fixed immediately and hope to provide a better experience to you when you use the app the next time.

2.) Although the apps required you to log in, if you had it on two devices, the accounts did not sync. If you added an event on your phone, it would not later show up on your tablet.: We have specifically built the apps so that your data is synced across all your devices as long as all of them are online. Perhaps the internet connectivity issues you mentioned might have played a part in the problem. In any case we sincerely apologize for the issues :(. Though late, it would be helpful for us to rectify your problem, if you can tell us what kind of "tablet" you were using.

3.) Maps of the hotel never showed up on the Android phone version of the app: Once again we apologize for the issue. This is something we never saw during our testing nor was it reported by any of our users. In fact I just downloaded the app and I see all the maps listed on my Android device. The only situation you wouldn't see maps is if you were on a weak wifi connection. I would say this is only a exception and not the norm. Sorry this has affected you.

4.) I could not search for events on my phone (again, Android) in the "Discover" tab.: The apps need to do a better job of explaining what discover does. Discover is meant to show events/attendees/exhibitors that match your interest tags. So based on the interest tags you selected on your profile page we try to do the matching. Sorry that we haven't done a good job explaining what "Discover" does.

5.) Some of the critical details for event listings, like time and room, were set in tiny light grey letters: Thank you for your feedback.
We tried to closely follow the design styles used by the standard Google's I/O 2012 app. We realize this is something that you had trouble with. I will forward your feedback to our design team.

Please note that we do not treat our users as beta-testers and sorry you felt that way. Once again we apologize for all the issues and we will do our best to provide you better a experience when you come back to use the app.

Sincerely,
Dushyanth
Engineer at Zerista, Inc.

Zen Faulkes said...

Dushyanth: Thanks for the feedback and explanations.

For the record, the "conference users as beta testers" was how someone else described the SICB app to me, not so much my own personal opinion.

Dushyanth Maguluru said...

Zen: Sorry for mis-quoting you on the 'beta-testers" comment. Thank you for understanding :)