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Mobile Apps at Events – Learning from the Past

It’s almost expected now that along with an event comes a mobile app for the iPhone, Android or other platform. At most events, certainly the larger ones and those outdoors in temporary locations, the enthusiasm for a mobile app soon wanes when the user finds that all they get is out of date information or error messages saying ‘no connection is available’. The simple fact is that the mobile networks cannot deal with data traffic effectively at event sites and this more than anything else leads to poor reviews in the app stores.

The two obvious approaches to fixing this problem are to either improve connectivity or make the app stand-alone so that it doesn’t need connectivity once it is installed on the phone. Improving connectivity via the mobile networks is not really an option, as even with temporary mobile towers the capacity and connectivity available is not good enough to deal with the sort of high density found at event sites and the cost becomes very prohibitive. A correctly designed Wi-Fi network can deal with the capacity and provide a much better user experience but this option may not always be possible in terms of budget.

I have seen more recently a trend to make event apps stand alone, driven most likely because of the connectivity issue, but there are two major flaws in this approach. Firstly the whole point of a mobile app is to offer something different, unique, current and interactive. If you take away the connectivity then you are left without most of those features and risk an app that is stale which, after an initial browse, is closed and forgotten about. The social media generation live in a connected world with a thirst for live information and that feature is what can make an app much more than an electronic programme guide. The second issue with a stand-alone app is that it doesn’t address the problem of downloading the app itself. Although you can try and persuade people to download the app before the event the fact is many will want to do it at then event itself and with a stand-alone app it is often the case that the install is even larger than a connected app as everything needs to be in the app download meaning the download is more likely to fail (and if too large is not allowed to be downloaded) over a mobile network.

There is a middle ground in all of this and it takes a leaf out of ‘mobile development’ from the 1990s when mobility was a laptop (more akin to a briefcase) and a 28k dial-up modem, it seems a lifetime ago now but it did teach developers an approach which is still very valid today. The approach is not earth shattering but it is too often forgotten by many of today’s applications, simply put it just means never assuming the network is available! More specifically it means factoring in the following design aspects:

  • Ability to operate with or without the network
  • Graceful degrade when the network connection fails
  • Local cache of data which updates when the network is available
  • Progressive and background downloads so that the user is not waiting for ages unable to do anything
  • Differential download of data so that only new data is sent
  • Avoiding or minimising ‘auto refreshes’ to reduce network load

Effective implementation of the approaches above will provide a much better user experience as the app operates when the network fails but the user still gets updates when they move into an area with connectivity, with the updates trickling in quietly in the background. There are some very good examples of mobile apps available but far too many still fall over or perform badly when network connectivity is poor and that’s just unacceptable for an event app.

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