1-on-1: Interview with a Human Factors Expert – Chris Rockwell

Each month, we’ll interview a human factors expert to get their take on the Human Factors and User Experience industry. In this month’s installment, we sat down with Chris Rockwell, President of Lextant, a leading user experience firm based in Columbus, OH (and a good partner of Research Collective).

Russ: Let’s jump right in…how would you describe the relationship between human factors and market research?


Chris: There is a lot of confusion and territorial behavior around this question. Both groups share the goal of having successful products and services make it to market. And there is some overlap. But I see market research and human factors or design research as siblings. While they are both important parts of the family, they seek different insights to affect different outcomes. Each requires different training and expertise. These differences might be clear to us as practitioners but our client teams sometimes struggle to understand the difference. This leads to confusion about when and how design research can help companies create great experiences.

To further the confusion, market research teams are being pressured to evolve and have seen the importance of generative research as an area where they can add value. In some companies, human factors research responsibilities are now being assigned to market research organizations. After all, it’s all research, right? I was even told recently that ethnography and co-creation are just market research tools like everything else. Well… not really.

Design research practices focus on human experiential elements to inform all aspects of the system design and to ensure offerings are usable, useful, and desirable. They work hand in hand with market research insights to understand things like attitudes, preference, channel size, and market segmentation so that a successful product can be brought to market. In short, human factors is user-focused and market research is market focused.

Russ: Lextant works on design research for all types of products, including auto, medical and consumer products, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being broad vs. specialization?

Chris: Well you never need design research until you have a design problem… and everything is a design problem. As a CEO, I’m sometimes criticized that Lextant isn’t more vertically specialized. But the truth is that there are many similarities in how you approach experience-led innovation programs across industries regardless of the specific product or service. That has led us to new opportunities, new offers, and new experiences.

Every program is a unique challenge. Every team is unique in what they need to become more human-centered. We learn a great deal by being able to reference experiences we’ve had in other industries to help our clients get out of their comfort zones and innovate. In the process, we’ve built a strong portfolio and deep expertise in several key industries which provides a unique, strategic, guidance to our clients and business stability even when markets fluctuate. All the eggs aren’t in a single basket. 

Russ: You’ve had great success building strong human factors teams, what are the key elements to building a great human factors group?

Chris: I’ve made no bones about that fact that I think human factors, as a discipline, has been a little stuck. We were so focused on human performance that we largely missed out on our chance to lead the experiential design thinking revolution. I’m glad to see that’s beginning to change. The biggest lessons I learned after leaving my first job at Hewlett-Packard and starting Lextant was the importance of understanding and collaborating with creative minds, of communicating my research insights and ideas visually, and the ability to lead teams through creative problem solving sessions. I was never taught this in school. So one of the most important, and lacking, skills that a human factors professional needs is what we call Design Sensitivity. I look for it in the professionals we hire and we teach it to them become more successful in working with client teams.

When I speak at universities, I always try to get the human factors student groups and the design school student groups together. I reinforce how important it is for them to understand and learn to work with each other. For human factors students, I emphasize the importance of learning to communicate visually. For designers, I emphasize the importance of showing how they think about the problem and not just the final design. Ultimately, the best human factors professionals are not only great practitioners, but are also strong team facilitators, creative collaborators, and solid communicators.

Russ: What it the biggest or most common weakness that you see with human factors teams on the client-side?

Chris: As an admittedly gross generalization, I think human factors professionals can be a little introverted but also dogmatic and uncompromising. This hurts them in organizations. When I was at Hewlett-Packard right out of school, I worked hard to make an impact. With thorough user research and expert reviews, I made a big list of issues and found lots of ways that products needed to get better from a human factors standpoint.

In my mind, every issue was equally important. I quickly gained a reputation as “the guy always coming to bring the bad news”. It was a good learning experience for me. Not that improvements didn’t need to be made but I needed a constructive way to help the team prioritize and solve problems – not just identify them. By helping engineers and designers understand their customers better, understand the problem they were solving better, and by sharing the challenge of solving, I became a more valuable and integral part of the team. I’m still friends with many of those engineers today some 20 years later. Human factors professionals need to learn to adapt to inevitable trade-offs, stay flexible, and be judicious about when it’s time for us to not back down.

Question: What are the biggest challenges that you see in growing a human factors company?

Answer: Well… where to start. Growing any business entails making lots of mistakes and learning from them. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, each day brings a new challenge. So the first step is to be ok with the fact that you’ll never really have it all figured out. I know I don’t. We are lucky in that there is a growing realization that experience-centered innovation is one of the last true differentiators for companies. That creates demand. But as companies grow their own abilities to do this kind of work and consultancies try to step up, staying ahead with innovative offers and building a great delivery team will be important.

Growth areas for me at Lextant have included professional growth, business savviness, and leadership insight. Patrick Lencioni, author of Death by Meeting and The Advantage, talks about how businesses need to be both smart and healthy. The smart part is learning how to grow a pipeline of business, build strong forecasting and financial metrics, and a capability to deliver. The healthy part is learning how to lead and empower a team through a shared purpose, a passion to never settle, and a desire to build great relationships. The people side of the business is as important as anything else is growing a business. And sometimes that’s the hardest part… ironically… for human factors people.

Read our August Newsletter

Chris RockwellChris Rockwell, President, Lextant

Chris is the founder of Lextant, a user experience consultancy dedicated to informing and inspiring design through a deep understanding of people, their experiences and their aspirations. Lextant’s experienced team of design research and user-experience professionals have provided this clarity for design innovation in such diverse domains as consumer packaged goods, health care systems, durable goods, retail apparel, consumer electronics, and information technology systems.

He grew up with a passion to understand how the things we “make” affect how we work, live, and play. At the early age of 16, he was conducting research programs to explore technology design and driver behavior for pay-at-the pump systems, steering controls, and entertainment systems. After completing his Masters in Human Factors Engineering at Virginia Tech., Chris joined Hewlett-Packard where he spent 6 years developing and honing user-centered design methodologies.

With a vision for design research at the heart of innovation, Chris formed Lextant and led the development of immersive research methods and translation strategies to identify and clarify opportunities for product, retail, brand and interactive design programs. His contextual, ethnographic, participatory, and modeling frameworks have helped clients such as Microsoft, P&G, Motorola, Whirlpool, American Eagle, Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson and others deliver products and solutions aligned with the emotional, behavioral, and experiential needs of their customers.

Team Russ headshotDr. Russell Branaghan, President, Research Collective

Dr. Russell J. Branaghan is Associate Professor of Human Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Russ also serves as Visiting Professor of Human Factors in the Master of Product Design and Development Program at Northwestern. Before joining ASU, Russ spent 15 years in industry as leading human factors research teams at Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Fitch, Big Red Rooster and Lextant. Currently, Russ serves as Founder/Chief Scientist at Research Collective, a Human Factors research firm.

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