Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Social Psychology Online

By Philip Hodgson
Philip Hodgson My perspective on the role of the psychologist in industry reflects the breakneck pace and the almost manic rate of change being experienced in the highly competitive field of telecommunications, an industry that has come to characterize the twentieth century and the high-tech transition into the twenty-first. I will introduce you to the real world of product development and show you how the psychologist's critical insight into human behavior is giving technology companies a competitive edge. You will feel some of the pressure and also, I hope, some of the excitement.

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
I had thought that getting into academia was a major coup. I was now to discover that getting out of it would be no mean task. The rules of the game had changed overnight and now, somewhat ironically, it was Oxford that was almost my undoing. Far from being duly impressed with the world's premier seat of learning, my prospective employer's perception was of an anachronistic, pedestrian system mired in the pursuit of less-than-useful subjects, and which was somewhat detached from reality. I can't think why. They betrayed clear symptoms of paranoia at the prospect of employing an individual who might be all tweed jacket and elbow patches but little action. I got the message and rolled out the secret weapon. I had previously worked outside of academia. I had trained as an architectural draughtsman and had held a number of other non-academic jobs. This hit the spot. Now they were excited.

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
The single biggest difference between working in a university and working in industry has to do with time, or more precisely with the shortage of it. Whatever you are working on, it was due yesterday. Time frames are frighteningly short, but shortage of time can never be the reason for not delivering. I now compress into days, sometimes into hours, what the academic researcher might typically achieve in months. The trade-off is that time to ponder and cogitate is at a premium. Ideas and solutions are often forced out through sheer dint of time pressure, are proven in the heat of competition, and then fade into yesterday's news as the development process races forward.

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
My domain of operation is the interaction between the product and its user - the User Interface. It is hard to think of a branch of psychology or cognitive science that is not implicated in the interaction between a complex communications product and the even more complex user. Now put those interactions into a noisy, mobile, even dangerous environment, or introduce product users who may be disabled, or put the product in a dramatically different cultural environment, and you can see why the psychology behind product development just got exciting. Our challenge is to create an invisible user interface, one that does not impose its presence on the user whose primary concern is with completing some task. Just as a good writer is invisible to the reader, good human factors design will be invisible to a product's user. Ironically, it is difficult to find examples of good human factors design precisely because they are examples of good human factors design.

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
For those who are considering a move to industry, I would like to advise against three assumptions that may trip up the unsuspecting academic. I speak from experience, having tripped over all three of them. The first is the assumption that a prestigious academic track record and a publication list as long as your arm is a passport into business or industry. The reality is that it might not even get you an interview. Whatever your academic status, be ready to re-invent yourself and to re-sell yourself and your skills. Learn the new rules of engagement, new ways of thinking and new skills. Learn to put your wealth of knowledge into practice not to just into theories. The private sector does not pay for potential, it pays for performance. It will not hire you for what you know, it will hire you for what you can do and for how you can make a difference. Your career will not be impeded. If anything, it will be accelerated by company and team support and investment, financial backing and, if you are in the right company, by global potential.

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.

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

2001 American Psychological Society
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