Designs for Users

Schematic builds interfaces for a variety of platforms

From interactive TV to sending content to cellphones, it's enough to give even the biggest companies a headache. So Microsoft, Nielsen, Turner, Fox Cable Networks and Comcast turned to Schematic, a Los Angeles-based company that builds user interfaces and Web sites. Companies use Schematic for both internal and external needs. Schematic President Richard Titus talks to B&C about dotcom survival after the bubble burst.

What does your company do besides build Web sites?

We design the user interface for the Web and television set-top boxes. We create solutions across a large selection of platforms that have a screen, a user experience that is 40% consumer, 40% b-to-b and the rest a mix of the two.

How was the company created?

It's the result of the merger of an interactive agency and a user-interface shop. What differentiates us is that the work we do is for a wide variety of platforms. We work on interfaces for everything from consumer electronics to set-top boxes, the XBox live platform to wireless phones.

How do you make working on all those platforms doable?

It's about user experience. How we interact with systems has changed over the years. It used to be we were fighting to get something on the screen that someone could see. Now the point of differentiation is user interface. And that's by design.

What are some of the biggest mistakes companies make when designing interfaces?

They let the engineers design the solution. Engineers focus on features—what it can do—and expanding choice. Usability is often about focusing choice and working with an intuitive behavior that humans have. Those two things are at odds with each other. To be honest, the friction often leads to the creation of the best user interface. Also, design on the screen is still a fairly new medium, whereas computer code has been written since the '30s and '40s.

Your customers seem big enough to have their own internal departments. Why go outside?

When the [dotcom] bubble burst, a lot of companies brought things internal so they wouldn't be told what to do by 25-year-olds. But they found two problems: There was ongoing maintenance, updates and changes, and there were big redesigns, new initiatives and new business units. They realized they could put a team in place to maintain things on an ongoing basis, but to build up a giant team, do a project and then lay them off couldn't be done efficiently.

Companies have realized that specialization makes sense. The reason they were getting ripped off in the late '90s was a market-condition problem, not a business problem. Our company has uccess servicing a certain kind of customer with a certain kind of product at a reasonable price. We aren't charging $500 an hour for an HTML guy because it isn't viable any more.

Why not just hire a smaller team?

The people they hire have no accountability. They don't know what they're getting. With us, we have accountability. A company can hire us and then have an internal team do the ongoing maintenance.