TED Rebuilds Its Site For The Future Of Online Video

As with so many fast-growing organizations, TED's website had lagged behind the evolving needs of its creators and users. That's about to change.

The completely rebuilt TED.com is now accepting signups for its private beta at hello.ted.com, with its official launch early next year. Co.Design got a look at the rebuild with June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media, and Thaniya Keereepart, product development director. The changes are subtle, but the redesign expresses some intriguing ideas about where the future of online video is going.

When TED.com launched in 2006, just one year after YouTube, people were still confused by how to work an online video player. There was not much evidence that geeky lectures from a little-known conference on technology, entertainment, and design would find an audience. But Cohen was convinced that opening up the exclusive gathering to the world was the right thing to do, and she was quickly proven right. "When we launched, the example I used to help size the opportunity was a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that had been downloaded 40,000 times," she told me. "Actually, the talks were watched 10.5 million times in the first year."

Rebuilding For The Team

Now, seven years later, the viral TED talk videos--along with hundreds of independently organized TEDx events taking place around the world every month--have completely redefined TED's mission of "ideas worth spreading." But as with so many fast-growing organizations, the website had lagged behind the evolving needs of its creators and users, even as TED launched new initiatives like the TED Prize and its fellows program, and new features like transcripts and conversations. Thousands of people are actively involved with TED in their everyday lives--whether that means organizing and attending TEDx events, translating talks into foreign languages, using them with students in classrooms, or an even wider circle that is simply sharing and discussing TED videos with their social networks, friends and family. "It’s such a different world for us organizationally," Cohen says. "When we launched it was truly for an audience. Now people think of themselves as part of our team."

Brainstorming By The Numbers

TED started the design process, in partnership with Brooklyn digital agency Huge, with a lot of listening, conducting 990 minutes of brainstorming with TED's team, and sifting through more than 90,000 feedback emails from users (yes, they love catchy stats). Some of the recommendations it followed were simple usability fixes: make the "hidden gems," the lesser-known talks, more discoverable with a tab at the top; rebuild the site as mobile-first for watching on phones, tablets, and even videogame players; kill autoplay, because people are often watching talks at work; shorten and simplify text with non-native English speakers and future translations in mind; add a "watch it later" button and more playlist features; tone down the branding in favor of white space and simplify the grid to let the videos shine; a video docking feature that lets you scroll down through comments while continuing to play a talk.

There are also tiny design touches that try to show that TED doesn't take itself too seriously, like adding an asterisk to the motto "Ideas Worth Spreading" with a rotating tagline like "like a virus, but with inspiration instead of sneezing."

An Archive For The Future

But the deepest motivation behind the rebuild was philosophical. Chris Anderson, TED's curator, encouraged the team to think about the challenge thusly: "How do we create a living archive for ideas worthy of the future? Something that can stand the test of time?" To that end, the team improved the transcripts to make them more discoverable to search engines and, as a result, more useful for researchers, and built the video player with an adaptive bit rate feature, so you'll automatically see a talk in high-def if you have a fast enough connection. As always, all talks are downloadable, too.

The rebuild is important for TED's brand going forward. As the independently organized TEDx phenomenon grows without TED's direct input or control, the distinction between TED and TEDx is constantly elided in most people's minds. "Giving a TED Talk" used to be an elite honor; now I hardly know a professional who hasn't given one, even if it was in Atlanta or Detroit. Online, the TEDx Youtube channel has over 30,000 videos from events all over the world, the best of which are hand-picked to filter up to the main site, and the worst of which are very bad indeed. One talk given in January at TEDxWhitechapel, on the psychedelic drug DMT, caused a big kerfuffle over "pseudoscience" and "censorship" after it was taken down from the main TED site. A TEDx event at Drexel University earlier this month was pranked by a well-known comedian who got his spot on the official roster with a bogus tale of traveling to "Mogadishu, the most dangerous city on Earth, where he shadowed the heroic al-Mahamud women on their quest to clean up their streets and restore humanity to their war-torn country.”

How the website looks now

By making TED.com the ideal place to experience TED talks in a personalized, connected, cross-platform way, TED has more chance to host the kinds of conversations they want to be starting, while taking oxygen away from the kinds of conversations they don't. "We use an outside firm to help with comment moderation, and we're considering using it even for our YouTube channel," says Cohen. "It's terrible for speakers when they're seeing comments that have nothing to do with their talks, like, 'you’re ugly.'"

A Call To Action

Web video is coming of age. Some of the talks on the site were filmed 15, even 30 years ago. Some have become conventional wisdom; some are more controversial than before; some unconventional ideas have turned out to be just plain wrong. So TED is reaching out to all its speakers for updates. They're also using this as an opportunity to craft a call to action for each talk.

"When people watch a talk that inspires them, they want to do something," Cohen says. "That takes different forms for different people. Some people want to learn more. Some people want to take action--volunteer, donate, or try what they’ve just heard and change their own lives. Some people want to comment or start a conversation." So starting next year, TED talks will each feature a list of suggested additional talks, readings, sources for further research, and action items to take the next step. TED's goal is to foster ongoing engagement with its content in whatever form users choose for years to come.

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4 Comments

  • Sam

    PS Maybe it's called "990 minutes" because they talked about it for precisely two days. Everything web and digital and mobile has to be so damn self important. "A living archive?" Give me a break. No, a website with videos on it.

  • Sam

    Good god, how many hours of brainstorming to...tweak a website? Give me a break. Decision-making by committee if there ever was such a thing. Get a leader at TED who actually has an opinion on what would be a good version 2.0 and build the damn thing. TED makes it sound as if they had to go to the moon and back to unclutter a home page.