TED’s conference app: an exercise in designing for virtues

I wrote this note for the BizBash interview but was encouraged to publish it here anyway. Same content but structured a bit more around design principles .. for the product designerds among us.


Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Every year TED, a conference for the intellectually curious, brings people together to Vancouver, BC for 5 days to witness talks by story tellers, experts, poets, and performers from around the world. TEDConnect is TED’s conference companion app, available for attendees only. The audience at TED is a special breed of leaders in their fields — multi-disciplined, tech-savvy. How do you get some of the most private, hard-to-reach, heavily-guarded group of people to suddenly socialize with each other? Well, truth be told, we do a lot to get that going. TEDConnect is only one of many avenues to foster connection. To do this well the app needs to reflect TED’s virtues at its core. I want to share key design principles that governs it.

But first: let’s look at numbers. Over 1400 people attended TED2016. The adoption rate for TEDConnect reached 92% this year. That is 92% of all attendees of the conference have downloaded and used the app at least once. There’s no industry standard that I am aware of when it comes to ratio of conference app adoption (is there? share please), but if I were to guess 92 is a pretty solid number. TED audience slants very heavily towards iOS at 82%, with Android tailing at 10%. This ratio changes drastically in favor of Android for events outside of US/Canada. Over the 5-day program nearly 47,000 messages were exchanged between attendees with over 55,000 network connections made. That is to say that each person attending TED walked away with an average of 26 new connections. At this point I’m quite happy with the adoption rate. The usage numbers are good, and I’m excited that there is still a lot of room to meaningfully grow.

Four key design principles:

Organize around moments

What are moments? Moments are key points in an attendee journey through the conference. Example moments are “preparing and packing”, “once you arrive”, “figuring out what to do”, “programs you can’t miss”, “who to talk to / what connections to make”, “what is everyone doing right now that I should know about”, “leaving and wrapping up”.. etc. Moments help us group and prioritize useful information and features.

Areas of interest inside the convention center are marked so you can find places as well as people.

Last year we introduced “whereabouts” feature — an ability for an attendee to share his/her location while inside the convention center space. This year we made it more user-friendly. To address the “schwag” moment, aka the rush to pick up the infamous TED gift bag, attendees can take a peek at the gift cave location and see how many people are there right now so they can decide whether the line is worth the wait.

Using moments to anchor features isn’t a novel process. Many product experts have written about this thousands of times. The model example that stuck with me though is from an article a few years ago when AirBnB used Disney’s Snow White as a narrative framework to better understand and empathize user journey. I want to underscore that “understanding” and “empathizing” are two very different things. We understand a first time TED attendee need personalized schedule in an easily accessible manner. We empathize with a first time TED attendee in that he/she might feel intimidated by the activity options and that we might suggest something like First-timer dinner gathering to feature more prominently.

Isn’t so much more pleasant talking to a character than a logo?

New this year is the TED Concierge feature. In a nutshell it is a chat support. The need is a messaging platform that can manage instant queue so 1400+ people can ask questions any time. We designed the concierge to be a friendly cartoonish character name Gigi. She helps attendees navigate their day, find lost notebooks, and ensure the diet cokes are refilled in the right fridges. “The feel we’re going for is surprise and delight,” — our customer support manager enthusiastically describes it. Gigi didn’t just refill the fridges. She also delivered a cold can of diet coke to the attendee who wrote to her on the spot (using location data). The team did a wonderful job at this.

For every key moments of an attendee’s journey at TED we consider both what s/he needs and how s/he feels.

Virtue 1: The difference between good and great is delight.

Keep content to a minimum

Most organizers are enthusiastic about covering the event 8 ways to Sunday — from blog posts to photos to SnapChat and Twitter and beyond. We do it all too. And they are all available. But not in TEDConnect. TEDConnect is a vehicle that enhances the conference experience — a means to an end, if you will. When you are at TED we want you to listen to the talks. We even ban uses of electronic devices inside the theater. We want you to pay attention. Outside the theater we encourage you to make friends. We go to great lengths to create unusually large and awkward name tags with items like “talk to me about …” to spark conversations. To that end everything that leads to physical activity — be it to attend something, or to meet some one — is what we want TEDConnect to do. The end game we want to see as organizers is that you walk away from your week at TED with ideas and friendships. Content can often times clutter, distract, and even serve as social pacifier instead of enabling an active participant.

Now cards tells you to go do stuff.

Now cards showcase activities of the moment in short, concise format. There’s no call-to-action to learn more elsewhere. We also don’t provide social media icon soup. A simple #TED2016 hashtag is displayed in rotation throughout the conference space and occasionally in the app to encourage sharing in users’ desired medium.

Virtue 2: Be present. Be here.

The primary currency is ideas

Walk into a room at TED and the first thing you hear won’t be “where do you work?” or “what do you do?”. At TED2016 the major conversation starter is “what are your dreams?” or even more bravely, “what are your broken dreams?” Ideas — yours — are what drive conversations. In the app we deliberately don’t show work title or company alongside names. We ask our attendees to fill in things like “an idea worth spreading is …” or “one thing people don’t know I’m good at …”. We use passion data to match people who are like-minded and let you know who the top 10 people you should meet are.

There are no logos of exhibition partners or sponsors in TEDConnect. There are times when an exhibit is featured, but only in the context of an activity. Brand presence at TED is an additive experience, not a subtractive one. Simply throwing logos onto a screen doesn’t provide value to attendees, thereby reduces brand value for both TED and our partners.

Target Social Space. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

For example: Target, our premier partner, built a tranquil park-like green space and invited attendees to share stories on dreams and nightmares. Stories are then hand drawn with ink on paper by series of artists and given back as gifts. To feature Target, we lead with “Get your dreams drawn” message instead of a company logo.

Virtue 3: Lead with ideas. The connection will follow.

Design for graceful failures

One of the toughest thing about releasing a conference app is that Apple app review process pretty much kills all your real-time bug fixing chances. The first few years was quite a struggle. The team that started the development of TEDConnect did a wonderful job at anticipating problems. We put a lot of logic on the server side. Things like configuration that enables access of content or features are all controlled via our event management system. We degrade design for when difficult to deploy features don’t work. We flag when wi-fi go haywire. We make sure the team at the physical help desk are fully knowledgeable about the app to help trouble shoot issues in person. At the conference I personally spend quite a lot of time troubleshooting with attendees. It’s a weird kind of joy to watch things not go quite as you expect.

Virtue 4: No one is perfect. It’s all about recovery.

What now?

Taking a break so the team can breathe a little before the next sprint cycle kicks into gear with attendees feedback in tow. The most fun part for me is to watch how the design of this app nudges social interaction and vice versa. And I absolutely love how much people enjoy working on this project. Can’t wait to see it evolve.