Virtual TED

As the pandemic forced the cancellation of events around the world, my team built a fully virtual TED conference in 6 weeks.


Product design + direction

The problem

COVID. That was the problem.

In the first week of March 2020, TED decided to postpone its annual conference originally scheduled for April in Vancouver. But it soon became clear that any in-person event was unsafe for the foreseeable future, so TED decided to go digital.

On April 22 TED produced a one day livestream event, promising a more compelling virtual experience for the real conference – just 4 weeks later. Our small product and technology team was responsible for fulfilling that promise.

Build or buy?

We started with a quick assessment of available platforms that might achieve what the conference organizers required. Hopin came the closest, but TED attendees are accustomed to unique, bespoke, and high-touch experiences. An off the shelf solution wouldn't be enough so we built our own starting from zero.

The sprint

My team and I designed two key components.

  1. The virtual conference experience. A web based app for TED attendees to view live talks, engage with each other, meet new people, and get help.

  2. Content tools for organizers + session hosts. A set of tools and features to organize, moderate, and present live content as well as the livestream mix itself.

The design accommodated continuous video while supporting private peer-to-peer attendee messaging, attendee profiles, search, schedules, and even a concierge service.

The livestream, session information, audience participation and live reactions were available continuously through a single panel with multiple seamless configurations.


The pandemic was unprecedented in our lifetime, so there wasn't a clear baseline to measure our effectiveness. But that didn't stop people from trying. Some even wrote a paper about it, finding a rising level of social connection. Quartz had this to say.

In general, producing a remote conference for people who are accustomed to paying $10,000 for one of the best conference experiences in the world was a high bar. They let us know if we got it right.

Attendee Bret Hurt put it this way:

"The apps for TED2020 are really slick…Different channels for real-time communication, and you can send claps/hearts to the speakers as they are on. The best I've seen for a virtual event so far, since shelter-in-place."

Aside from that, there were some really good talks. This one from Ethan Hawke was very memorable for me.

©2023 Aaron Weyenberg

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