Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Combining Aptitudes, Interests, Training

By James Cunningham
James Cunningham You might call me a former psychological scientist - after getting my PhD from University of California, San Diego, I was a mathematical psychologist on the faculty of Cornell University before evolving into a usability engineer.

As a manager in the User Experience Engineering Division of AT&T Labs, my job is to work with the other usability engineers in my group to make sure that AT&T's Internet-based services are easy to use. Each usability engineer works as a member of a product team that also includes software engineers and business planners. We assess customer needs, design user interactions, create prototypes, collect usability feedback, etc.

Most of the people in our organization have a doctorate in some kind of experimental or quantitative psychology. Many with this sort of background are successful in the software industry - some in usability or human factors engineering jobs, and some in jobs farther away from their training, such as in software development or product management. Their success can be attributed to a combination of aptitudes, interests, and training. People from our field tend to be good with computers and technology, are able to take an analytical approach to problems, and can communicate ideas clearly. Our training gives us knowledge of human capabilities and limitations as well as the tools to observe people and collect performance data in systematic and unbiased ways. We keep up-do-date in our field by participating in conferences and professional organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery special interest group on computer-human interaction, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, and the Usability Professionals Association.

When I switched from the academic world to the business world, I encountered two major differences. One is having a boss - a person who needs to know your work plans, who can alter your work plans, and who evaluates your performance each year - something very different from the freedom of academia. Another major difference is the emphasis on "the bottom line" - the success of the business is the ultimate driving force behind every action and decision. We are not searching for truth or looking for elegant solutions, we are searching for revenue and looking for a higher stock price.

OBSERVER
American Psychological Society
December 2000
Vol. 13, No. 10


2001 American Psychological Society
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