The electrical engineering and psychology graduate worked in aviation safety, helped design a security portal system for the White House, and now consults in custom home design
By Dwight P. Miller ’74
My years at Lafayette studying for my B.S. in electrical engineering were not easy. I had little practical experience with electronic circuits and was much more interested in how people used electronics products. I was also playing lacrosse and trying to master the social arts of being a Zeta Psi fraternity brother.
Most of my electives were in psychology and I decided to spend a fifth year completing a B.A. in it. I had no idea how the two degrees could be combined in a career until Wally Sanders, a friend of the family, mentioned a friend who was a “human-factors engineer” and designed the insides of submarines for Electric Boat in Groton, Conn.
I researched the rather obscure field of human-factors engineering (HFE), which concentrates on making technical systems user-friendly. I found author biographies in the journal Human Factors at Skillman Library, which proved that others had successfully combined engineering and psychology in their careers as engineers and scientists. In senior interviews on campus, companies became interested in having me enter their lucrative engineering-management programs. But I wanted a job in HFE, to which they said either a) we don’t do that, or b) you are not qualified. Prof. Burt Cohen, a good friend who taught the statistics courses in psychology, expressed one night over a scotch that he thought I had the juice to go to graduate school. Tough decision: top dollar and easy street or more degrees.
I packed my bags for Columbus and five more years of hard work and abject poverty, getting my master’s and doctorate in experimental psychology at The Ohio State University. Despite my lukewarm 3.0 undergrad GPA, I had the perfect combination of skills to work in the eminent Human Performance Center, running experiments for my adviser on an aging analog computer, which needed lots of TLC. While at OSU, I combined traditional cognitive psychology with industrial/systems engineering (ISE) and aviation safety. I really wanted a joint degree in psychology and ISE, but the two departments were not willing to trade requirements. My master’s thesis evaluated a new kinesthetic-tactile display for helicopter pilots, and my award-winning dissertation predicted how people use hierarchical, sequential computer menus in fighter cockpits of the day. I also spent a summer as an intern at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and a year at Honeywell’s Research Center in Minneapolis working on avionics systems.
The tough decision and hard work opened many doors, but the one I walked through was at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The place was more difficult to land an offer from than Bell Labs, its corporate cousin, but again, I had the right combination of skills to join the human-factors group. I ultimately spent 26 years helping engineers design user-friendly systems and interfaces and analyzing high-consequence systems for human-error potential. One of the most satisfying was helping Sandia engineers design a security portal system for the White House and Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. It all began with an engineer’s simple question about how tall the average person was, but matured into a project where almost every aspect of the physical design received careful scrutiny vis-à-vis human interaction.
After the systems were installed, I visited one of the sites and talked to the Secret Service about user reactions. An agent told me that most user input was positive, and then read me verbatim the words of a woman who was wheelchair-bound and had to use the portal a minimum of twice per day. The woman was very complimentary of the design and stated that she no longer had to eat lunch every day at her desk because she could now easily wheel herself through the portal. As I left the building, I could feel my eyes tearing up from knowing that I had actually helped a physically challenged employee get through her day with less difficulty.
After setting up Sandia’s Corporate Ergonomics Program in the early 1990s and helping its facilities organization design some very specialized workplaces, I became very interested in how people interact with their environments. I joined the Environmental Design Research Association and four years later hosted its 2004 Annual Meeting in Albuquerque. I also began to teach the Human Factors in Design and Research Methods classes in the architecture department at the University of New Mexico.
My love for this work pushed me into early retirement in 2007 to engage in private consulting, primarily with clients who want to build custom homes. I use proprietary questionnaires, interviews, and interactive techniques to help them identify values and priorities related to home design. Clients leave my office with a detailed “design program” full of specifications from which a designer or architect can develop a fitting home design. My business also helps people solve acoustic, energy flow, and sustainable-building issues.
Reflecting on my 35 years since college, it seems like a very long, strange trip indeed. I never did fit into any guidance counselor’s box career-wise, but managed to follow my passions and cross many artificial academic boundaries along the way. To quote Steve Jobs, like Apple Computer, my career stood “at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology” (Time, April 1, 2010). I hope my story encourages Lafayette students to follow their passions, study what is interesting, ignore artificial departmental boundaries, and think creatively about their careers. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to enjoy what you do for a living.