Are Conference Apps Ready for Prime Time?

As I get ready to ship out to Dallas for ASAE's Annual Meeting at the end of this week, I've realized it's probably about time to plan out my schedule for what I'll be doing once I'm there. The paper meeting program ASAE sent me a few months ago? Long gone--I am not one for leafing through a paper meeting schedule, highlighting sessions and dog-earing pages of a heavy book that I'll then be lugging around the meeting. I tried this approach at the CESSE meeting I attended a few weeks ago, and during the course of two days onsite, lost no fewer than three copies of the program book and four of the tiny pocket guides. Lucky for me ASAE has not one but two meeting apps--one for iPhone and one for iPad (sorry, not sure if they also work on Android or other platforms).

Is having a conference app in this day and age a nice-to-have or a requirement? In my opinion--as conference attendee--I personally say requirement. Granted, I have no particular attachment to paper program books--I was not an ASAE member or conference-goer until about three years ago, so I never developed the addiction to those paper guides that many association event attendees seem to have. Even though I'm not young, for conference purposes I'm basically a digital native. Given my inclination to favor digital over paper, on one hand I feel that a conference app is a necessity in this day and age. And not just a mobile-friendly site--I want features like being able to create a planner and add those sessions to my calendar from my device. But at the same time, I realize that event apps are pretty much in their infancy and to a lot of app developers and conference hosts, a meeting app is maybe more of a PR thing or nice to have addition to the paper planner that most attendees probably still favor, and functionality is less important than just being able to say "we have an app for this."

Take yesterday, for instance--it's 9 am and I'm on the bike at the gym and see on Twitter that the #ASAE12 iPhone app is finally available. The iPad version has been available for several months, but since the iPhone is what I'll be relying on onsite, it's the more important to me. I immediately go to download the app and figure I'll multitask my workout by planning my schedule while I'm biking--score! But the app won't download so I ask on Twitter whether others are having the same issue, and hear back from three people that they are, and also from an ASAE staff person that they're sorry and they'll look into it. Kudos to ASAE for being on Twitter at 9 am on a Saturday....but as the equivalent staff person at my association who would be fielding those kinds of complaints at 9 am on a Saturday, I recognize how much of a shift away from the way we've always done it this is (call member services between 8 am and 5 pm, Monday-Friday) and how it has huge implications in terms of staffing, member expectations, etc. And I wonder--am I expecting too much, or are conference apps just not ready for prime time yet?

These are the features that I think still need work:

  • Two different apps are not a good idea. To me, having two separate apps--one for iPad and one for iPhone--just shows that the app developers aren't ready to produce usable apps yet. For instance, the ASAE apps are done by two different vendors--does this mean that ASAE was just trying to showcase two different vendors (as well may be the case, since it's ASAE) or that neither vendor was able to produce an app that works on both phone and tablet? To me, it represents double the cost, double the work for staff, double the number of potential complaints to deal with, and double the work for attendees who have to build their schedules on two different devices. Also, the apps are totally different, with different functionality and different looks--just confusing.
  • "At a Glance" has no purpose in an app. The iPhone app has a "schedule at a glance" feature. Each item appears as "Registration Open...." (or whatever the title of that particular session), implying that you click to get the rest of the information, right? Wrong--because if you click, nothing happens. What is the point of this feature, then, other than frustrating the user and providing absolutely no information, other than an incomplete listing with cut-off titles and locations? To me, the only thing this section does is ensure that ASAE will be flooded with questions and complaints about why sessions won't open when you click on them.
  • Lack of promotion of app(s). Basically, there is no information about the mobile apps on the ASAE Annual microsite. Ok, that's not strictly true--there is a tiny phone icon under "Community" which then links to a paragraph that says "stay tuned for details" about the mobile app. Of course, this could be a chicken and egg thing, where ASAE didn't want to promote the apps because they weren't ready for prime time yet, but I think it's more a case of oversight. What I would have appreciated is an explanation of the two apps, what functionality each provides, and a link to where you can download each app. 
  • Timing. I know the reality of developing apps and getting them approved by Apple is a huge ordeal. But that's a reality that has to be balanced with attendee expectations. Look at the timeframe attendees are used to in terms of planning schedules--paper planners are mailed months in advance. Meanwhile, the ASAE 2012 iPhone app wasn't even in the app store until the Sunday before the meeting--less than a week before registration opens. And then once it did appear and was available for download, it was riddled with problems like only two or three sessions per day appearing, app taking ten minutes or more to download if it even downloaded at all. Obviously these are issues that will be sorted out over the next years as conference apps become more established, but for now it's a question of how to balance whether it's worth doing a bad, late app at all.
So what do you think--are meeting apps ready for prime time or not? As an attendee, do you view a meeting app as a replacement for the paper planner, or just an add-on that you may or may not even use?