When product development goes beyond the screen
Service design from within TED’s Tech team
In almost every organization I have ever worked for, I have been part of the technology team. It makes sense, given my training and background. But from the very beginning of my career, I was always drawn to solving problems in ways that weren’t limited to what is on a screen. Sometimes it’s hard to convince others of the importance of these intangible experiences alongside the digital solutions, especially when you’re seen as a coder regardless of what your actual role in a tech team might be. However, my passion about making someone feel at home or safe (maybe it’s Persian hospitality I learned from my mother) manages to find a way of getting into the work I do and I find service design a natural way for my technical and care-taking tendencies to combine forces.
The TED Tech team is always pressed up against a dozen time-sensitive projects. Our go-to approach: a digital solution. We’re comfortable (and good at) building apps and online systems. But in many cases, the problem we’re trying to solve requires that our work extend out into the real world.
One challenge that landed on our radar in 2012: improving the experience of registering for the annual TED conference. We needed to replace the fragmented, outdated, piecemeal set of systems used for conference management. What we had: a glorified spreadsheet that fed into systems which had to be carefully maintained by TED engineers to keep things synced. What we needed: a seamless system to make our conference team’s lives easier — and to help them better serve the needs of attendees. Because the attendee’s experience was stilted too. The online interface to register for the conference was outdated, the messaging around it was confusing, and feedback revealed anxiety and confusion. We always want to give people the best experience possible when they engage with TED but we also needed to more than satisfy attendees’ needs; we needed to delight them.
An off-the-shelf solution was explored and then dismissed; our conferences and how we run them are too bespoke. We could have done a quick fix and aimed to create an updated database — one that would do a better job of delivering data and that would take a few weeks to build. But my team really wanted to go deeper — and to do that, we had to understand all the weak spots in the system. It was clear that this problem required more than just digital tinkering; this redesign could not begin and end on the screen.
We started asking broader questions. Not just, “What do you need the system to do?” But, “Can you walk me through the entire journey an attendee takes?” “What triggers an attendee to register for TED?” “What information do they need at that moment?” “What happens when they arrive at the conference?” We had to hear about everything that might take place from the moment we announce a new conference through when we send thank-you notes after the event. Through a lengthy discovery phase, we mapped out the current process — and overlaid it with thoughts on solutions. We also spoke to actual attendees about their journey from deciding to attend to actually arriving at the event. Their pain points were mapped and solutions prioritized.
At first, some stakeholders in the project didn’t understand why we were spending so much time asking about “journeys” when there was a leaky vessel we needed to rescue. But as we heard more and started brainstorming fixes, the teams we were working with began to understand the scale we were thinking on. (Note, we worked with the wonderful Phi Ha in these initial stages. She was a great champion of looking at the issue holistically.)
Challenge part 1: upgrade registration
We started our redesign by upgrading online registration. TED is a little different from many conferences asking potential guests to share a bit about themselves in an application form rather than registering directly. Believe it or not, in the original process, the application we ask people to complete had to be filled out in one sitting — there was no chance pause mid-stream to think. The form even had a note asking people to copy and paste their answers before submitting, “just in case”.
This fix was a no-brainer: We broke up the form (which asks pretty meaty questions so we can get to know a person) into manageable sections. Now, people applying to attend TED can save their work as they go, and press the submit button when they feel ready. It’s a simple change that avoids a lot of frustration.
Challenge part 2: activity sign up
Next, we rethought another anxiety-provoking process: signing up for the optional dinners, events and activities that happen around our speaker program. We use these smaller activities to give people a chance to mingle with smaller groups as well as experience something fun. As such, there are limited places for each option. This step should be fun and exciting but it wasn’t because a few weeks before a conference, an email went out announcing the opening of sign-ups. Whoever was fortunate enough to live in the right time zone could choose from the entire range of options — but by the time the New Zealanders woke up, every lunch, dinner and activity was filled.
We wanted a process that leveled the playing field for our global audience. So now, attendees are alerted about the sign-up period. All the options are laid out for them — with clear notes on when each event happens in relation to the speaker program — and attendees pick their first second, third and fourth choice for each time block. Once sign-up closes, the system randomly allocates all the spaces, making sure that everyone receives at least one first preference. The demand for these events will always exceed supply, but we’ve streamlined a source of stress. And each attendee’s final selections now go into a personalized agenda on the TEDConnect app.
Challenge part 3 (the big one): Guest check in
And of course, we saw plenty of areas for improvement once attendees are at the venue. We started with something small that we suspected would have a big impact: the line. Every conference, attendees check-in at our registration desk to collect their badge (we’re serious about security — no-one can enter without one). Many have traveled long distances to be there — they’re excited, but they’re also tired. And they’re greeted with a 20-minute wait in line. For some, it’s a chance to socialize, but for many it’s a bad first impression.
We looked at each weak element — the bank-at-lunchtime-length queues, the staff shuffling through slightly out-of-date guest lists to find a name — and, piece-by-piece replaced them with something warmer and more efficient.
Now at a TED Conference, attendees enter through the front doors and are greeted with a smile by a team member holding an iPad. The guest gives their name (first or last works) and they’re directed up the stairs to collect their badge. As the greeter marks the arrival, the name appears at the badge station upstairs and team members jump to finding the badge. They hand it off to the check-in staff, along with a program book. By the time the guest has reached the top of the stairs (or down the hall), they’re approached by a team member who greets them by name. “Welcome Maya! I have your badge right here.”
Some seasoned conference attendees are quietly impressed while others audibly exclaim, “Wow, how did you know my name?”. The team responds in a way that retains a little of the mystery (we are surprised they don’t remember giving their name 1 minute earlier) “We were expecting you!”. Post-event survey results have given us confirmation that checking in at a TED event is now, as it should be, a delightful start to a conference experience; one where a guest barely has to slow down to collect their badge and enter the venue.
The journey continues
We’re continually working to improve the attendee experience. I’d love it, for example, if we could detect the primary language of an approaching attendee and greet them accordingly. Or perhaps use facial recognition based on the badge photo as they enter the venue so we don’t even have to ask their names to get their badge and program pack ready.
But we’ll need to ask a lot more questions first.