Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector
Applications Drive Theory
Stuart Card, Xerox PARC
Nothing drives theory better than a good applied problem. At Xerox PARC, I'm currently working with Peter Pirolli on a theory of how people access information - "information foraging theory" - and how we can invent and model forms of external cognition, such as dynamic information visualization displays, that graphically-agile computers make possible. We use many behavioral science methodologies, from field observations, to experiment, to eye-tracking, to formal cognitive modeling.
My interdisciplinary background has been directly relevant to my work. As an undergraduate, I was a physics major at Oberlin College. Later, I briefly was the director of Oberlin's computer center. After hearing Herbert Simon give a talk, I decided to go to Carnegie Mellon University to study with Allen Newell and Simon in the Systems and Communications program, part of which was based in psychology. When that program ended, I defined my own program in computer science and psychology. From there, I went to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, where I have been ever since, (although I also have been an adjunct professor at Stanford).
My colleague Tom Moran and I, along with Newell as a consultant, have been given enormous leeway to explore theories and studies in the area of human-machine interaction. Among other things, our behavioral studies were responsible for the commercial introduction of the mouse. It was our theory of mouse movement, not the empirical results, that finally beat down the objections of a hostile group of engineers toward the introduction of such an odd device.
In developing theories and models, I draw both on my psychological training and my training in physics. The most useful part of my psychological training was probably in cognitive modeling - how to do protocol analyses, and how to make computational models, since those dealt with mechanisms underlying behavior. Neuroanatomy and physiology were also useful, because of the contact with the structures of the brain. My introduction to the principle of bounded rationality was key.
One final point: A good way to disseminate a theory is to embed it in an artifact. In an industrial research laboratory, the coin of the realm is prototypes. For that reason, my group not only does behavioral research, but also designs and builds prototypes for novel forms of human machine interaction. That way, we make sure the ideas will get into application form.