The making of Polidea Connect
The software community is very event-heavy. From local meet-ups and informal gatherings to workshops and international conferences, the schedule is busy. Since many of us at Polidea love to get involved in events and we also organise a fair share ourselves, we decided to put together a project team of designers and engineers to improve the conference-going experience. Obviously, the key thing at an event is the content and learning from others in our field to make better products. But live events beat books in their networking opportunities; they present an excellent chance to meet people with the same passion, but different views and knowledge to exchange thoughts.
With this in mind, we kicked things off with a workshop session – everyone who was going to be building the final result plus our most frequent conference-goers. We talked about what irritates them at events or what they feel is lacking from their experience. The results differed, some had problems putting together names and faces of people they’d met, some felt like they were missing out on the social aspects. We sorted all the opportunities we had gathered and prioritised them by how frequently they occurred and how crucial they were to the experience. Using a point allocating system, we chose the following as ‘must have’ or ’should have’ features:
- exchange business cards
- rate talks
- contact sponsors
- get more materials
- boredom management
The process then continued with a group brainstorm. After a lot of “yes, and…” (remember, no “no, but”s!), we had some solid leads. We designers put a big emphasis on not focusing on tech-driven ideas. Yes, we were talking about tech conferences, but we were focusing on enriching the human experience and that doesn’t always means using gadgets. Let’s talk a bit about our rejected concepts.
- The app. Since this is the obvious one, I’ll tackle it first. It had some pros: we had means to do it (we are a software house, after all), it could easily encompass all our use cases and it was (relatively) cheap. But it also had one massive con: the primary goal we had set for the project was to support networking and networking happens best when it’s face to face. We didn’t want to bury attendees in their screens. Besides, we all know that once the phone comes out of the pocket, there’s a bunch of emails to be answered, notifications from social media to be dealt with, a set of new lives in Two Dots… A true Pandora’s box. We rejected it because it didn’t meet our basic requirement: to bring people together.
- A completely screen-less solution. We considered creating a system of rating talks and exchanging contacts based entirely on physical actions. Maybe your badge has tear-off business cards? Maybe you rate a talk by choosing a particular exit to go through? Or you cast a coloured vote in a big transparent bowl? The possibilities seemed spectacular, but we ultimately decided against it, as it required perfect conditions, e.g. voting by walking can go very wrong when one exit gets jammed and people choose based on comfort instead of opinion, and a lot of hardware or manpower to count people, votes etc.
- NFC wristbands. They were on the table for a while, and had a lot going for them: they’re small, snazzy and can be branded. There was one drawback though. If we were to store information on them and let users scan each others bands, we were essentially throwing away the entire iOS user base – even if available on newer iPhones, developers cannot access NFC, it is only used for Apple Pay. If we were to create scanning stations, wristbands turned out to require some precision work: matching the small chip with a scanner isn’t as easy as it seems. They would also be expensive and might make some people feel uncomfortable (“Do I have to shower with it? This isn’t a festival!”). NFC was tossed out.
The final solution is a blend of numbers 1 and 3. We opted to use RFID, which is cheaper than NFC, and to put it in our attendees badges. A badge is something you can easily take off, you have to wear it anyway and cards have a much larger antenna, which makes them a lot easier to use with scanners. Now all we needed was scanning stations…
We built an app for Android tablets with RFID scanners attached. This gave us all the technology advantages, but didn’t draw users into their individual smartphones. Instead, the scanning stations were meeting points for attendees, attracting not only the users themselves but also onlookers.
RFID scanners work like an external keyboard and pull an ID number from the RFID card. Everything else happens on our side: the app matches users to our database and let’s them perform a variety of interactions. The requirements mostly concerned safety and security: putting a bunch of tablets unattended inside a conference for developers is asking for trouble. The stations are made in two heights from painted steel and come with a detaching case for the tablet. This way, they serve three contexts: a low voting station, tall photo stations and tabletop stations for sponsors.
After two attendees connect, we cross-email them with their respective details. Users decide what to share by filling out their social profiles, where they choose social networks to connect. They can also choose to take a picture during the exchange – that way they can easily match all those names to faces.
MCE 2015 was a fantastic testing ground for Polidea Connect. Looking at the usage statistics, we were quite happy with the results:
Out of all attendees, 86% were active on the system, and over 90% of those used it more than once.
There were a total of 464 contact exchanges between 227 distinct users, with 50 people exchanging details with more than 5 other people – if you’re bad with faces or names, that’s already a big number to remember.
When it comes to rating talks, the statistics were even more positive. 91% of users rated at least one talk, with the average at just below five – meaning the average user rated almost half the talks they attended. It also means an average of 50 ratings per talk – that’s an amount of instant feedback that you can’t achieve with surveys.
Direct review process for a conference speaker. #mceconf pic.twitter.com/KPkxBzeLEZ— Wiebe Elsinga (@welsinga) February 6, 2015
The next steps are pretty clear to us: we want to improve the email communication and instead of cross-messaging create one thread with both users – almost like a real-life introduction. That way you not only receive all the details, but can already carry on the conversation straight from there. Additionally, we want to make some usability improvements to the voting stations by merging them onto one stand to reduce clutter. We are currently in talks with events who would like to use the system next. The future is bright (and connected)! If you would like to collaborate with us on Polidea Connect, or use it at your event, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.