Virtual TED

A fully virtualized TED conference built in 6 weeks.


Product design + direction

The challenge

As the COVID pandemic gained momentum, 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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