Interface design

TV used to be easy. There were just two broadcasters and three channels, and they decided what we watched, when we watched it. Now there are umpteen content providers and multiple platforms, and we watch when we please. This competition forces old-style broadcasters to think about interface design much more seriously. Richard Titus is taking no chances at the BBC

Typographic chaos is the only way of describing the BBC’s Web pages before their recent redesign. You actually burst out laughing when you compare the old with the new. Side by side, they have a Trinny and Susannah ‘before’ and ‘after’ quality. The ‘befores’ are a rag-tag, mis-shapen visual racket, while the ‘afters’ are sleek and neat – a model of creative consistency.

‘It really was a case of going back to basics,’ says Richard Titus, the BBC’s new-ish controller of user experience and design who had the job of sorting out not just the homepage, but also user experience across all the BBC’s non-linear platforms including Internet, mobile and iPlayer. ‘We assembled a wall of shame, with print-outs from the BBC’s three million or so pages. It illustrated that there were as many different user experiences with respect to brand, design, navigation as there were sites.’

Titus is sitting in his office perched high in a corner of the BBC’s gleaming Media Village in west London. He doesn’t seem the typical BBC type, more Iggy Pop than David Attenborough, and you blanch at the organisational heave-ho it must have taken this fast-talking American to achieve a top-down redesign in what is a staunchly bottom-up organisation. And that excludes the design itself – the mind boggles at the job of harmonising the visual language of the BBC’s 1000-or-so websites and ensuring a consistent user experience for all its 37 million global weekly users. One design insider, who did not want to be named, said it took Titus ‘some time to achieve traction’.

Titus is all diplomacy. ‘A colleague said to me I had one of the most difficult jobs in the world,’ he says. ‘At Apple, Jonathan Ive has one customer – Steve Jobs. Just one man who decides everything, and if you make him happy, that’s it – all Apple’s employees fall in line.

‘The BBC is an organisation of more than 21 000 people, all doing creative things. Its website, mobile and red button services organically grew over time. To evolve its disparate digital experiences into a single consistent one is a Herculean task.’

Titus has no formal design training. He describes himself as a ‘classic American college drop out’ who studied music, philosophy, computers and performance at ‘quite a few schools’. However, he has a keen eye, and is quick to spot the graphical and branding howlers of the BBC ‘befores’. ‘Who made this?’ he laughs as he gestures to a page that has no recognisable BBC branding. Titus points to another before page with a staggering 13 mentions of the BBC. ‘There was absolutely no logic or consistency,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t even consistency in the content management systems being used to create and serve the Web pages. We have lots of them.’

After the websites, the BBC’s mobile offering and iPlayer came next. Both have been overhauled since Titus joined in summer 2007 – the iPlayer in June and mobile in March. Both threw up design challenges. ‘When you add radio to the iPlayer, it creates huge complexities,’ he says. ‘With mobile, the information you present and the signposting is vital.’ Titus sourced solutions from both his in-house creative team, part of the BBC’s future media and technology division, and a roster of external consultancies. ‘Our design partners often help us with vision work as well as execution’ he explains, adding that 20 per cent of his budget is spent externally.

Titus waxes lyrical on the BBC, and seems smitten with its public service ethos. He talks about access and heritage, and how the BBC’s timescale is unlike the commercial world that ‘eats its own young every day’. This contrasts with his pre-BBC career, a wide-ranging entrepreneurial profile on America’s West Coast, including founding the Web consultancy Tag Media, which he sold to Razorfish in 1998, and co-founding Schematic, the interactive agency acquired by WPP in 2007. He also executive produced Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? and still keeps a hand in various technology, advertising and media start-ups.

You suspect that the BBC, mindful of its numerous digital competitors, hired Titus as much for his energy and contacts as his design eye. Ask Titus if the BBC is playing catch-up in the digital age, and he says, ‘The BBC is right on track. All of Europe looks to us for leadership. After the homepage redesign, we saw knock-offs all over the place. Croatians, Czechs, everywhere. I got e-mails saying “you have to sue”, and I said we’re not suing anyone. It’s great.’

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