TO Tech Summit Tackles Intersection of Design and Technology

With a diversity of backgrounds and specialities presenting, the TO Tech Summit took place at the MaRS discovery district in downtown Toronto. The focus this year was on the intersection of design and technology.  

With quick opening remarks and videos from the sponsors (and an introduction by the Amazon Alexa co-host) the TO Tech Summit started with Avrum Laurie, the director of product management at Freshbooks, taking the stage.

Laurie started to explain that in the early days of Freshbooks, they had a problem. The communication between different departments was lacking, and Laurie explained that, “After a while things stopped working. We were throwing more and more out, and getting less and less done,” he said.

The solution at Freshbooks was to implement a practice that Laurie preached but never practiced: Design Thinking and Agile Scrum. Laurie had organized an Design Thinking book club, but he and his partner at Freshbooks never implemented the strategy at their own company.

The basics of Design Thinking is everyone should be involved in the design process. Developers, executives, the designers themselves, and everyone else on the team taking part, “is essential to getting the best ideas,” Laurie said.

Implementing Design Thinking without wasting time or resources is where the Agile Scrum comes in. The Agile Scrum is breaking down a work week into segments, Monday and Tuesday the entire team gets together and discusses and sketches out the design plans for the week, Wednesday is actually building that design, and Thursday is user testing, which often involves just one Freshbooks customer coming down to the office with the incentive of a $50 gift card. Fridays are spent going over the whole process and seeing where fixes can be made. “Even if we scrap the whole project, it’s only been a week,” said Laurie.

Next was Sachin Mahajan, the director of IoT at Telus, who came to discuss the wide reaching capability of the Internet of Things. Rather than touch on the specifics of Telus’ role, Mahajan provided statistics; the petabytes of data collected by Walmart alone, and the theoretical millions Tesla saved by employing the Internet of Things when they discovered a malfunction in their vehicles, and even the life saving capabilities from the earliest form of IoT, General Motor’s OnStar service. All this, while 99 per cent of the world’s hardware remains unconnected.

Once Mahajan wrapped up, the first panel discussion of the day started. It featured Faye Pang of UberEATS, Brian Lipovetsky, the former head of of product at eBay, Paul Grey, head of platform services at Kik, Wesley Yun, the head of user experience at GoPro and Lorena Scott, the VP of operations at 500px.

The most salient point from the panel was being able to recognize different users on your platform and recognizing that it’s your responsibility to cater to both. For Yun and GoPro, it means realizing that not all GoPro users are the extreme sports type, but at eBay and 500px the roles are a bit more clearly defined. eBay has the buyer and seller dynamic always at play, while 500px has to iron out an experience for the artistic photographers, and the more prudent buyers.

All the panelists agreed that coming innovations will put new stresses and reliefs on the customer’s experience, like AI. Connecting users to brands on a platform like kik will be easier as AI develops, but it still lies in the hands of the user experience team to make those interactions feel meaningful, he said.

Following the user experience panel was a talk from Daniel Abramovitch, the stereoscopic supervisor from Blue Sky Studios, the animation studio behind the Ice Age franchise.

First, Abramovitch explained exactly what stereoscopic meant; it’s the practice of filming in 3D using two cameras. With the technical details out of the way, Abramovitch explained that the difficulty in complex animation was connecting the engineers with the artists, and finding a way to make a complete product come out the other side.

“I had to figure out how to build a bridge between the artists, engineers and producers, who don’t even like to talk to each other,” he said.

Like at Freshbooks, Abramovich said an entire overhaul of the design process happened when the studio decided to make the change to 3D movies, but the change happened naturally at the studio. The solution came incrementally, but it involved as much parallel work between all parties as possible, rather than sending one partially finished piece to another department, like they had done in the past. That change had been natural but difficult, and Blue Sky Studios is in the process of the same change today, looking to accommodate virtual reality and immersive cinema.  

The second panel was the highlight of the day. It was a discussion on women in tech, consisting of Deborah Hall, CEO of Dive Networks, Macy Kuang, founder of MiaoMiao games, Emma Kotzer, developer at Shopify, Lucia Mariani, COO and VP of Feast Interactive, Karen Maxwell, service design director at TD, and Nada Basir, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s Conrad business school.

The women all had their troubles in the tech world. Hill for example, was greeted by pin up posters at her first engineering job, but what was most impressive was the optimism and love all the women had for the industry. And Basir made sure to note that the optimism was backed up by data. “Study after study shows bringing women into our organizations isn’t an HR thing, or a CSR thing, it’s a competitive advantage,” she said.

Once the panel wrapped, Wesley Yun of GoPro was back to discuss why designing a physical product can be so much harder than an online one. His reasons were varied, and they included cost, and practical differences between the two, but focused mostly on the delayed feedback on a physical product.

“Once a customer tinkers with a product and figures out how to use it, then they can have a real experience with it. That’s when you know a product is well designed,” he said.

The last two discussion of the day focussed on subjects that were more abstract that the tactile ones before it. Karen Maxwell was back on stage with Shannah Segal, the Principal of Usability Matters. The pair presented the findings of their study looking into what will become normal in the next 30 years of technological developments. The basic findings were privacy becoming a privilege to be paid for, downloadable memories that can be flipped through like a book of photos, technological body modifications, and AI nearly indistinguishable from humans.

They readily accepted that none of their predictions may come to pass, but noted that prediction 30 years into the future is nearly impossible, and their findings were mere possibilities.

The day concluded with Yuri Takhteyev, the CTO of, giving a presentation on continuous delivery. The presentation was especially helpful to developers in the audience, but he did touch on points that resonated with the entire crowd. When it comes to endlessly obsessing over perfection in any product, Takhteyev said, “Ultimately you need to ask yourself is it launchable in this state? If the bugs you’re going over will prevent you from launching, they need to be your number one priority.”

Finally, he echoed a common theme through all the presentations of the day, everyone has a part to play in design.

“Testing really needs to be everyone’s job. It costs more to fix mistakes when you find them later,” he said.