Cognitive and I/O Psychologists in the Technology Industry

Margaret Diddams, PhD
Microsoft Corporation

Most people do not think of psychology in their image of the high-tech world of software applications. Yet at Microsoft (MS), many psychologists make significant contributions in both software and people development in different groups across the company.

Several psychologists are directly involved with product development. Mary Czerwinski researches user interface technologies. Her research interests include navigation on the web, as well as attention and perception questions in 3D environments. She has found that her psychology background is invaluable in exploring the best coupling between the user and the computing technologies she works with. Mary received her PhD in cognitive psychology from Indiana University in 1988 and has published in both the attention and human-computer interaction fields. Mary came to Microsoft because this is the place to do software or any other kind of advanced user-technology interaction, and because they were extremely supportive of her quantitative approach to user research as it applies to software design.

In her five years at Microsoft, Leah Kaufman, who is also a cognitive psychologist, has conducted usability studies on at least 30 different products, including both software and hardware. Currently she is working on the user interface and help systems for the next release of MS Office. She notes that her psychology training has been absolutely crucial to her work here. Every question about the design of an application demands a creative yet efficient and reliable test design. Devising an experiment that accurately answers a design question is a huge, exciting challenge-just like it is in academia. She constantly uses cognitive psychology research to explain the flaws in a particular interface design in software. The issues of learning, memory and attention that she studied in graduate school are demonstrated every day here in the labs at Microsoft and, to her, they are fascinating.

Psychologists also play a central role in employee and organizational development. Doug McKenna established the Executive and Management Development (EMD) function at Microsoft. He currently is the general manager of Human Resources Planning with responsibility for aligning Human Resources (HR) strategy, systems and practices with business needs. To this end, he must draw extensively on his Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology background in areas of compensation and reward systems, performance management, employee research and leadership/management effectiveness/development. Doug's career and learning has benefited tremendously from building a portfolio of varied and challenging career and personal experiences: psychology professor, management consultant, research scientist in a research organization, business school professor, senior manager in industry and university board of trustees member.

Similarly, Jeff McHenry began the HR research function as part of EMD. Management recognized that they needed good data and information to make better HR decisions, and he was excited to be part of the solution to this problem. Currently, Jeff has moved into a generalist position as HR director for product support and adds that his psychology training is still very relevant. Essentially, his job is to tend to the human systems issues that affect our organization's performance. When problems present themselves, he uses organizational diagnosis tools to do assessment and uses the action research model to try to foster change. Jeff's training as a differential psychologist at the University of Minnesota has shaped the way he thinks about issues. And the fundamental statistics and research skills he developed in school continue to be critical to him as he sifts through information and draws conclusions about human systems.

Finally, I am group program manager for metrics and measurement in the Information Technology Group (ITG) at Microsoft. ITG is responsible for the underlying network, data and internal applications that we use to run the business here. I am responsible for research and measurement that supports our continuous improvement initiatives. For instance, I am responsible for usability studies on our internal applications that we use to run our business. I am also responsible for the design of metrics we use to describe and measure our performance, including making sure that our internal ITG satisfaction surveys are valid and consistent among services and regions across the world.

As I collated everyone's remarks for this article, I was amazed at the range of different responsibilities that everyone has had during their tenure at Microsoft. For my own part, I am thankful for the broad range of research methodology, statistics and content that, as an I/O psychologist, I have been able to draw upon when faced with new and complex organizational issues.

(Originally published in the May/June 1998 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)