Human-Computer Interface Designer

Mary Carol Day, EdD
AT&T Bell Laboratories

As a technical manager of a Human Factors and User Interface Design group at AT&T Bell Laboratories, my work days are packed with varied activities and are often unpredictable — which ensures that they're not boring. The unpredictability comes from being a member of fast-moving project teams that are designing new products and services for a rapidly changing marketplace. The ten or so PhD experimental and human factors psychologists in my group are involved in a broad array of human factors activities.

As human factors specialists on project teams, we serve as 'user advocates.' We provide expertise on human capabilities and limitations, just as other project team members provide expertise on hardware and software, and we are responsible for designing and evaluating the user interfaces of new products. In the course of our work, we conduct user needs and task analyses and create user interface prototypes of new products. These prototypes are tested by potential users in iterative design and test cycles, and the final user interface design is given to developers as requirements for the new product. We may also conduct experimental research with new user interface technologies, such as automated speech recognition or multimedia teleconferencing.

A major challenge is to determine what we can do, within demanding cost and time constraints, to ensure that the product meets users' needs and is easy to learn and use. This requires a broad understanding of human capabilities and a large toolbox of diverse methodologies for collecting valid and reliable data from people. In addition, it is important to communicate well with people who may have very different perspectives from our own and to learn constantly about new technologies.

What do we design? My group primarily designs graphical and multimedia human-computer interfaces, interactive voice response systems, and work processes and support systems that incorporate new technologies.

The path to my current position was not planned, but I think it may be typical of many career paths. After obtaining a BA in library science (necessary for financial support) with almost a double major in psychology (my real love), I was encouraged by faculty at Florida State University to apply for a National Science Foundation summer fellowship program. The fellowship prompted me to obtain an MA in experimental psychology from Florida State. When I decided not to continue with the PhD program, I spent a year at Yale University and a year at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in research positions. After these experiences, I decided I wanted to 'work for myself.' I obtained an EdD from the Human Development Program at Harvard University, where I continued to develop skills in both basic and applied research. At Harvard, I focused primarily on cognitive development research, but I also worked on national social policy issues for children. After a postdoctorate at the Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh, I joined the psychology department of the University of Houston as an assistant professor. There I conducted research on cognitive development from both Piagetian and information-processing perspectives and greatly enjoyed my interactions with students.

When I had an opportunity to join AT&T Bell Laboratories, the decision to leave academe was a difficult one, but one I have not regretted (well, only occasionally). At AT&T Bell Laboratories, I designed the user interfaces for telephone systems that I now see in businesses throughout the country and on TV shows. At AT&T Corporate Headquarters, I designed and managed an AT&T employee opinion survey — my first and probably my last study with 60,000 subjects. I now lead a group of human factors specialists who are designing AT&T's next generation of products and services, as well as new work processes for AT&T work centers. Three themes have remained constant throughout my career: a commitment to the perspective and tools of experimental psychology, an openness to applying creatively the psychologist's knowledge and skills in diverse areas, and a desire to make a positive difference for people.

Although most experimental psychologists have pursued careers vastly different from my own, mine is not unique in the human factors community. There are more than 5,000 members of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Of those, 39 percent of the members have academic backgrounds in psychology and 9 percent in human factors per se. Human factors specialists work in industry, consulting companies, government, and academe. The field is growing, and it offers exciting opportunities in many different areas of specialization.

 
(Originally published in the March/April 1996 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)