Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Sam is a Human Factors Engineer Sr. Staff/Manager at Qualcomm Inc, where he has travailed for 6 years. In his hard-won spare time he plays the cello in the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, a UCSD-affiliated institution which he highly recommends. He is married to an alumna of the UCSD economics department; Sam and his wife are expecting their first child in October. Sam averages 3-4 parking tickets on the campus facilities per year, contrasting with an average of 0 in the world-at-large.
What path did you take to become a user interface (UI) designer?
My major was in psychology as an undergraduate at McGill University. I then got my master's degree in human-computer interaction at UCSD. For my master's project I did empirical work in the Distributed Cognition Lab with Jim Hollan. My project was on how people use history information while browsing, in particular if people are faster in navigation tasks using visual information. The results showed that people were actually more efficient using textual representations, which I found somewhat surprising at the time.
I took a fairly standard route in school to get where I am today, doing UI design. But even a standard route actually involves little actual design so there is still a lot to learn once you're working in industry. Now, as a manager, I look for people who have familiarity with the human mind and its complexities. For example, Cogs 107B teaches you how behavior emerges from all kinds of complex networks. You have to really understand that people don't work like computers. Then to be a good designer you should be comfortable enough with behavior so that in a usability test, for example, you can predict what users will do. It's hard to tell if someone will be a good designer until they really start doing it.
How has your career evolved over the years?
My first job out of school was as a human factors consultant at a now defunct consulting firm. I got that job by following up on a connection - don't underestimate the power of interacting with people in the field! I went to Qualcomm in 2003. Again, I got that job through a connection with an excellent designer who I had interacted with at Wingcast, another defunct dot-com company. I had told him years before I liked his work and wanted to learn more from him. He remembered my comment and hired me when he moved to Qualcomm. He mentored me here and taught me a lot about the design process.
Now, after 6 years at Qualcomm I'm a manager of a lot of people. Hiring people is really like bringing someone into your family. It's intense to work closely with a team for eight hours a day. People work quickly and slowly, and approach the same problem in many different ways. It's interesting to see how people tick and to figure out how everyone can work effectively as a group - I do have degrees in psychology and cognitive science, after all! As a manager I need to consider who I have to best fit a particular problem or change the problem a little to better fit the person. Certainly much of what I do now doesn't resemble what I did from the start. I do enjoy the process of being a manager but I still enjoy doing the actual design too, especially from the ground up.
What projects are you working on now?
I work on a crazy number of things! I guess my two main projects right now are a touch-based mobile interface for a high-tier or mid-tier phone, and an Integrated Developer Environment (IDE). The mobile interface project is exciting because we're doing it from scratch! Compared to the keypad-based user interfaces we've developed for in the past the principles of design are all different. We have to consider in new ways how the user interacts with the screen, what the buttons will be like, and how to use the screen real estate.
The IDE is for a major software called BREW that Qualcomm makes. BREW is a kind of operating system that allows the user to create more software on the phone. Any developer who uses BREW will need to use the IDE that we are making. Our job is to design the tools these developers will use so they can easily and effectively debug and make their new software.
Can you describe what the design process is like?
Take the IDE project, for example. In that case the only way we can really understand how the developers are debugging their code is to actually see them do it. So we do contextual interviews - like an anthropological survey. This kind of research can be critical for developing a product when you have a known customer. On the other hand we might be making a product for any market like the touch-based mobile interface. It's a lot harder to do research with "any market." Sometimes it just doesn't fit in a real-world schedule to do a lot of formal testing, so we sometimes do informal usability testing.
A lot of our work then involves making diagrams and laying out specifications ("specs") for exactly what the product will look like and how it will work. We give our specs to the engineers and spend a lot of time dealing with various consequences of those details. Sometimes there will be an inconsistency in the plan, weird fringe cases will show up, or the plan is unrealistic to implement. At this phase we have to coordinate and compromise with the engineers and adapt our plan accordingly.
Is it exciting to see a product created that you wrote the specs for?
I definitely got a kick out of it when I first started! The first time here at Qualcomm that I literally designed the whole specification it was a document that ended up being 100-200 pages. The user interface began to show up on the device and I thought, "this is what I was thinking about! And now I'm seeing it in front of me!" Over time that feeling has worn off though. One challenge is whenever you get something back for the first time there are always bugs in it. I'm still like a grad student in that I'm obsessed with details! When I get something back I often think, "this is wrong, "this is wrong, and "this is wrong. How is it possible that this was put together so wrong when I spent all that time explaining it in excruciating detail?" I've just had to make peace with that part of the process.
Do you have any advice for cognitive science students as we make our way in the world?
I think interacting with professionals is key both as a student and when you're in the work force. I have been fortunate to find several mentors throughout my career who have taught me a lot. Making connections has also helped me find jobs. I already mentioned that it's impossible to know whether someone will be a good designer until they actually do it. In that vein students should get involved in real projects outside of their coursework. Doing internships and interacting with people who have design experience will be incredibly valuable.
The other advice I would give is to continue to work on self-improvement. Sometimes people have the goal to make meaningful changes in the universe. This is a great goal but many of the things you do professionally end up going in the garbage. It's very hard to be invested in one specific thing; if your only focus is to make change it could take 20 years before something really happens. Having a higher purpose is important and you should enjoy many aspects of your work, but the main focus should always be about making yourself better.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at email@example.com.