How we’re helping you dig deeper into TED Talks

Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in Design philosophy, Editorial, New features

Ancient temples in early morning

 FabVietnam Photography for Getty Images

At the 2012 staff retreat, TED’s curator, Chris Anderson, gave a now near-mythical talk on the future of TED. The question on his mind: How can we build a living archive of ideas worthy of the future? To illustrate his point, he showed pictures from his trip that summer to the Bagan temples and pagodas of Myanmar, built between the 11th and 13th centuries. More than 2,000 of the structures have survived, and their ancient spires stretch for miles in every direction, beautiful and strange. Since Chris gave his talk, I’ve visited, too, biking through the temple complex in 100-degree heat at high noon. Every time it seemed like we were making progress, we climbed atop another pagoda and looked out over an entirely new expanse of peaks and spires, like a Buddhist Twilight Zone that had no ends or beginnings.

Building something that lasts a thousand years means a strong foundation and careful upkeep. A TED Talk may happen at a specific moment in time, but ideas take years to develop, and can be refined and altered every day. Context is something we on the editorial team take pretty seriously. A user may watch a talk on a subject they know nothing about and afterwards say, Wait a minute, is this true? Who else agrees? How can I find out more? (And sometimes: What can I do now? or How can I help?) After all there’s only so much a person can fit into 18 minutes. We started calling this feature Talk Extras.

In thinking about a talk page that contains more than just the talk, we asked ourselves a series of big questions: What didn’t happen in the talk? What’s happened since then? How can we give viewers more access to great minds and great ideas?

And how did we answer our questions to produce a functional new talk page? Spreadsheets. Lots of ’em. We created 350 text files. We sent more than 500 emails, to our speakers and to each other. There were dozens of hysterical meetings, gChats, taps on the shoulder, impromptu heated discussions in the hallways and visits to our UX lead’s desk. (Add a bit of Scotch. Shake. Repeat.)

First, we did some initial data collection. Over the summer of 2013, we sent a talk page survey to about 400 speakers. Of the 150 who responded, we analyzed — and re-analyzed — their answers until we had conceptually organized the content, dividing it among categories we could reasonably apply to any talk page. The big challenge was to come up with content types that were comprehensive yet robust enough to adapt to the breadth of our talks, which cover science, art, the big picture, business, and everything in between. We knew we couldn’t include everything right away, so we took a valiant stab at coming up with a system that could nonetheless cater to just about everyone.

In mid-fall we started getting serious about design: How would all this varied content look on the page? What could our tech team realistically build in time for launch? How could we design a page that was modular and flexible enough to cope with one, many or even no items, all while looking beautiful and being user-friendly? Comps, edits, comps, edits. Comps, edits. (More whisky.)

We should mention here the indispensable help of our beloved Online Community Manager and budding programmer, Aja Bogdanoff, who built us a beautiful functional interface for storing all the talk page information — without the need for a spreadsheet. This allowed us to edit text onscreen, and avoid bugging our already-overloaded engineers with demands for visual design or code changes. Finally there was the oh-so-simple task of writing and editing 630 individual pieces of content for the first batch of new talk pages. We quickly wrote a style guide, argued over when to italicize and when not to, scrutinized commas, edited, rewrote, re-edited and edited some more. On March 4, our 12-month-gestated baby was born.

Below, a look at some of the new talk page features. First, on a sample talk page. And then in a list.


1. Citations

Beside the interactive transcript, you will begin to see citations related to specific moments in the talk. These citations may provide articles and books to support claims made by the speaker, or they may be comments and extra information. Charmian Gooch, this year’s TED Prize winner, provided extensive annotated citations for her 2013 talk; Sheryl Sandberg gave updated stats on her 2010 talk.

2. Speaker recommends

These are lists of books, articles, videos and sites provided by speakers specifically related to the ideas in their talk or talks. Check out Susan Cain’s annotated reading list for introverts or Tim Berners-Lee’s expansive list of sites about the open web.

3. Gallery

We’re pleased that we can finally integrate beautiful galleries we’ve run on the TED Blog into speaker pages. Check out Alexa Meade’s beautiful people painted as if they were canvases and Ed Burtynsky’s stunning, unsettling gallery of manufactured landscapes.

4. Companion books

If you have given a TED Talk, there’s a reasonable chance that you have written or are going to write a book to expand on your idea. We’re now able to help users find these books directly on talk pages.

5. Since the talk

After you watch a talk that’s more than a year or two old, it’s only natural to want to know: Is this still a thing? What happened next? In Since the talk articles, we revisit speakers some time after their talk to see how their project or argument has made progress. Check out Eli Pariser on founding Upworthy or Sal Khan’s story of progress at the Khan Academy.

6. Other written pieces

The TED Blog is rich with supplementary materials, which can now be linked directly to relevant talks. Check out Helen Fisher’s 10 facts about infidelity or a Q&A between futurist and many-time TED speaker Juan Enriquez and synthetic biologist Ed Boyden.

7. Take action

Ever watch a talk and spring up out of your seat at the end and think, What can I do now?! We collected recommendations directly from speakers as to how to act on their ideas. They range from fun (Contribute to Wikipedia or Sign up for a Coursera course) to useful and sobering (Learn what to do if a natural disaster hits or Get trained in suicide prevention).

Talk Extras are now available on about 60 TED.com talk pages, and we’re actively seeking input on what works and what doesn’t before we dive into the next, gulp, 1640 talks.

Of course, we have tons of ideas for other types of content we’d like to add to talk pages just as soon as we catch our breath. If you have things you want to see, let us know.


hello_thu1Thu-Huong Ha is TED’s editorial projects specialist. She wrote her first novel at age 14, and hopes to see many more Buddhist Twilight Zones before she dies.