Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector
Motorola is a global leader in wireless communications. My team at Motorola includes psychologists, ergonomists and user-interface designers. We are an integral part of an award-winning industrial design team that houses genuinely world-class talent. We conceive and design wireless communications products and solutions that include two-way radios, integrated cell phone/radio products that are capable of accessing the Internet, and numerous other voice and data systems, most of which are embodied in small hand-held or wearable products.
My journey into industry began when I graduated from the University of York in England with an honors degree in Experimental Psychology and a keen focus on psychoacoustics and the perception of speech. I confess to a brief flirtation with the notion of teaching until I was instructed to arrive for training equipped with crayons and scissors. Instead I secured a place as a doctoral candidate in the Speech Perception Lab at Northeastern University in Boston. Here I became a scientist.
This enabled me to accept a lectureship in Psychology at St. Hugh's College, University of Oxford, and a postdoctoral research position in Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology. With Oxford in my arsenal, I felt well qualified to hit the academic job market and track down a cozy sinecure. However, I was struck by the number of highly qualified people caught up in a seemingly uncontrollable race to land positions in institutions that could offer little in the way of research funding or opportunity. It still frightens me that I might have been swept along by this desperate momentum and accidentally blundered into some academic backwater. Luckily none of the universities I targeted were sufficiently far-sighted to see the mileage in hiring a speech scientist, and for the apologetic salaries on offer I realized that it would be foolhardy to convince them otherwise.
In Oxford I had reached an academic peak. Conventional wisdom says that when you have reached a peak the only way is down. Of course this is not so. A lofty vantage point gives you a view of distant possibilities, an elevation from which to better spy the landscape and find yet another peak to climb. I spotted one in the distance: Telecommunications. I shifted my focus and interviewed with a Canadian company called Bell Northern Research (now known as Nortel Networks).
Tweed Jackets and Elbow Patches
Thus, it was the greatest irony that I found myself playing down what I had thought to be my strongest card - Oxford - and playing up my pre-academic career. But that was the breakthrough. Academia made them nervous; Oxford scared them rigid. Now a new door of opportunity opened and so, setting a general westerly bearing, I stumbled upon Harlow, just north of London, and began a new career in telecommunications.
No Time to Cogitate
A second difference is that, unlike the focused academic researcher who drills down into a single research question, you now have seven projects running concurrently, while trying to accommodate three more projects looming on the horizon. And that's not the team, that's just you! The ability to multi-task is essential. If you are a serial processor, you will crumple under the weight of project demands.
A third important difference is that you are no longer working for yourself but for your team and for your company. The academic can lead a somewhat solitary existence, driven by the need for publications and citations and the need to become a "name". In industry you must be a team player. This is one of industry's great strengths. Ideas are not guarded from colleagues (though, of course, they are guarded from the competition). Many ideas and solutions are the shared result of brainstorming and group-think sessions. Today, commercially successful innovations are seldom the brain-child of a lone genius.
Of course, there are many other differences: You don't have to write interminable grant proposals, resources are available to support your work, no more grading a hundred and fifty essays, and you will probably double your salary overnight.
The Psychology Behind the Product
The work of the human factors team in Fort Lauderdale is driven by principles of optimal product design, namely that the operation of a product should be self-evident; that the user should always be in command (and never be made to feel inadequate); and that a product should evoke a positive user emotion. The true challenge is to realize these principles with products that are increasing in features while decreasing in size.
The questions I now grapple with concern the fit of a product to the user, and they range from physical issues - such as the fit of a product's form and weight and keypad to a user's hand - to conceptual and cognitive issues surrounding the user's mental model of a device's navigation scheme (and whether it is the same mental model that began in the designer's head). Sometimes our investigations are purely methodological: Are task performance rating scales subject to cultural biases? How can a test subject talk us through their user experience without the self-analysis and commentary affecting performance? And at the end of the day, how do we turn the answers to these questions into design recommendations that will give the product a competitive edge?
New Rules of Engagement
The second assumption is the belief that the answer to every question lies at the other end of an experimental study. When a product planner or a designer asks you to make a judgement about a particularly sticky issue, she is not asking you to run an experiment. She is asking you to draw on your expertise, right there and then. At times you will be both lawyer and priest as you defend a designer's choices on the one hand, and offer products a final blessing, on the other. Often, you may be looked upon as final arbiter, bringing logic and scientific rationale to bear on apparently interminable dilemmas and trade-offs. Sometimes you will have the opportunity to run a product usability evaluation; more often you will conduct rapid expert heuristic review. But frequently you will simply fall back on your experience. Develop the ability to think on your feet, make the best judgement you can (there is seldom a definitive answer) and try not to preface every solution with "It depends...."
The third assumption is that it is necessary to continually strive for perfection. Excessive perfectionism will hamstring a career in business and industry. In the private sector, even though standards are extremely high, the pursuit of perfection will see ninety percent of your time, effort and resources committed to the final ten percent of your goal, and you will still be striving for the unattainable when the competition is out there cleaning up the market with its products. Churchill used to say that the maxim 'nothing avails but perfection' may be spelled shorter: 'paralysis.' Stop worrying about perfection and start understanding compromises. Most of what happens in business and industry, especially in product development, is the result of a series of trade-offs and compromises. Learn how to make those trade-offs. Learn how to make decisions with less than optimal data, or even without data at all. Learn how to argue a stance without uttering the phrase "point-oh-five." In other words, know when good is good enough - and do not let "better" be its enemy.
Editor's Note: As of December 1, Philip Hodgson is Director of User Research at Rare Medium Inc. in London, England.