Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Voicing Psychology at Big Blue

James Lewis As an engineering psychologist at International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), I'm involved in commercializing the voice and speech technologies developed by IBM Research. These technologies include speech recognition, artificial speech production, speaker identification and translation. This work provides a tremendous opportunity to apply psychology - primarily cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics - to the design of human-computer interfaces. These opportunities include (but are not limited to): Developing design principles from the psychological and human factors literature, and applying the empirical methods of psychology to product design and to the development of product assessment instruments.

I suppose most people have followed some strange path to get from where they started to where they are. My involvement in software development began in high school when I participated in New Mexico's First Annual Programming Competition. The competition included a crash course in FORTRAN, after which I decided that whatever I did with my life, it wouldn't be computers. That didn't last, however, and for my master's thesis in music at New Mexico State University, I produced NMSU's first computer-generated musical composition. The programming language was MUSIC4BF, which was based on FORTRAN!

Because I had taken a number of psychology electives, I could get an undergraduate degree in psychology with the investment of one additional semester, making work in the emerging field of music therapy a possibility.

In that additional semester, I took all of the 'hard' psychology courses I'd been avoiding - perception, learning, experimental design, and introductory statistics. That semester changed my life: I hadn't realized the elegance and beauty of experimental psychology-the intellectual challenge of using statistical methods to extract meaning from a collection of numbers generated by conducting an experiment. I ended up going for my master's degree in experimental psychology, specializing in engineering psychology.

I chose engineering psychology because the job market for this type of applied psychology was growing rapidly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was tired of college (and broke). This was one of the few areas in which a psychologist without a PhD could easily find work.

At the time, four major fields were hiring engineering psychologists: the military, aviation and aerospace, nuclear power plants, and computer companies. During my second year in graduate school in psychology, I had a summer internship with IBM in Boca Raton, Florida, working in their human factors department. After going back to finish my thesis (in the area of motor control), I returned to IBM in Boca Raton as a permanent employee.

In 1993, IBM supported my part-time attendance at Florida Atlantic University as a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology. In 1996 (at the age of 43), I received my PhD in experimental psychology, having studied psycholinguistics under Lewis Shapiro and Betty Tuller. This was fortuitous, because it was at about this time that IBM began serious development of commercial products based on its speech technologies, and all of IBM's human factors engineers in Boca Raton began working in this area.

Since 1980, I've worked on many interesting projects, including:

  • IBM's first attempt to produce a computer system for which ease-of-use and ergonomic design was a primary focus (System/23 - a precursor to the modern personal computer)
  • Physical input and control devices, including IBM's converged keyboard for personal computers, mice, tablets, touch screens and in-keyboard pointing sticks
  • Assessment techniques for determining the relative usability of competitive products
  • A portable tablet computer with satellite communications for long-haul truck drivers
  • A cellular telephone with touch screen interface and personal organization software (Simon)
  • IBM's first continuous speech dictation system (ViaVoice)
  • A formal grammar for natural-language-like control of a word processor
  • User interface guidelines for Voice XML applications

If you're working at a university, maybe you've been thinking about making a change to industry. The current technology boom means there are certainly plenty of positions available.

I expect it is very different from the normal life of a university professor, though. Less vacation time, for one thing. Another is the need for approval for anything you publish. (If you hate the pressure of publish-or-perish, this might sound refreshing.) That's not to say publishing isn't encouraged: Over the years, I have been able to publish over 150 technical papers, including a large number of IBM technical reports (both classified and unclassified) and technical disclosures, a book chapter in the Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction, eight papers in refereed journals, 26 conference papers, and have had ten US patents issued (with about 40 more pending).

You'll have to get used to the D-word: DEADLINE-Here's what it sounds like:

"If the product isn't ready in May then it won't be in production and on store shelves in August in time for the back-to-school rush!" Or....

"If we don't get this product out in time for Christmas, then we might as well not make it at all!"

I thought I was going to hate deadlines, but they're what help make working in product development demanding, exciting and fulfilling. When you've got a deadline, you have to make things happen and you have to be as efficient as possible. You develop the flexibility to adapt when you need to throw away all of your carefully-considered research plans to tackle an immediate crisis. You must be willing to provide the best judgement you can in the absence of confident knowledge.

In dealing with the demands of product development, you come face-to-face with the limits of psychological knowledge, which is often better-suited to the development of scientific theories than to meeting the quantitative requirements for effective human factors engineering. It is a setting that can either drive you out or drive you to high levels of productivity and discovery. I wouldn't trade it for any other.

American Psychological Society
January 2001
Vol. 14, No. 1

2001 American Psychological Society
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