Cynthia Rando is the CEO of Sophic Synergistics, an innovative consulting firm which works with various VR/AR companies. The Houston-based, “industry agnostic” firm specializes in removing organizational barriers and other obstacles to human performance by taking a cross-disciplinary approach, paying thought to design, business strategy, risk mitigation, root cause analysis, and other factors. Notably, Ms. Rando holds her BS and MS in human factors engineering and an MBA. As an expert in user experience and ergonomics, Ms. Rando worked for 12 years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, serving as a human factors engineer, as well as an innovation and strategy coordinator. She’s a member of the board of directors for the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, and a Certified Human Factors Professional. She also teaches at the University of Houston, Clear Lake.
Ms. Rando graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] I noticed that at the core of your business model is a desire to unite humans and technology in a business setting to maximize potential. I wanted to talk a little bit about human factors engineering, specifically as it relates to virtual reality and augmented reality.
[Cynthia Rando] Human factors as a field is concerned with how people interact with technologies, whether that’s products, services, or the environment in which technologies are deployed. Specifically, when we talk about interaction, it’s making sure that the human not only has a good experience with the technology, but also that they have a safe experience and that we don’t cause harm. Also, do they understand immediately how to use that technology based on the instructions or design? Can they successfully interact with it without too much effort?
With innovative products like virtual reality and augmented reality, that’s going to be the biggest hurdle to mass adoption: does it fit the human’s expectations of how it should work? If it doesn’t and there’s a learning curve, is it designed in such a way that the learning curve doesn’t create negative consequences to the human interaction with the technology? Also, with VR/AR, there are a lot of different aspects where safety comes into play; for example, augmented reality is like real life accelerated; you’ve got an overlay of digital experiences over your actual reality.
I’ve had a career not only in design and human factors engineering, but also in business strategy. After working with in both realms, I started to notice a natural complement in both of these fields—business and human factors—as well as a gap in how these industries connect. There just wasn’t a company that dealt well with both under one roof in terms of giving human factors design advice or support to clients, while also thinking about it in the context of the business. What is the return on investment for employing human factors and how do I speak to my investors about the value that will bring from a product success perspective?
[OnlineEducation.com] Can you give an example of something that is a challenge to be overcome in virtual reality specifically, and how you would apply this model?
[Cynthia Rando] One of the biggest challenges with virtual reality is it still requires some sort of device to wear over your face. Right now, the biggest deployment of this technology is the headset and all of the sensors that come along with it. You start increasing weight, and the more weight on your face and your head, the worse it is for this human being over time. That’s a huge challenge in virtual reality—getting the technology to advance fast enough to where you can reduce the size, the weight, and the impact on the human body itself. Anthropometrically you’re already expending a lot of effort holding your head up on your body with your neck muscles, and those fatigue after a while. The body’s natural state is to always be in motion, but when we think about how virtual reality’s biggest sector is the gaming industry—people will play for hours at a time without ever taking a break. By contrast, when you think about businesses that deploy VR for training, people maybe only have their headsets on for 30 to 40 minutes because they’ve got safety protocols to take breaks. You don’t have that type of control in the consumer public.
It takes only takes one person to do something that they shouldn’t be doing, or wearing a headset for an extended period of time where they have a negative outcome—a neck injury or a head injury—because they’re overrating their natural ability to fight the fatigue, and they didn’t take the break to restore their muscles. There’s a lot of concern in the industry there.
In my field, what we’re looking at is how do you balance the tradeoff with the length of time to use, while designing an effective product within the constraints of the technology and weight introduced to a human being? And what’s the optimal compromise? We’re still not there yet. The ideal state would be to make a headset as innocuous as a pair of sunglasses: very lightweight.
[OnlineEducation.com] What don’t most people understand about human-centered design? What would you say is the crux of the field?
[Cynthia Rando] I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s backed in science about how humans think and behave. I don’t want to say medically, but biomechanically, anthropometrically—how your body works through space and time and the impact on a person from using things and devices.
Actually, a lot of people get human factors confused with human resources; that’s always a fun one for me. This is engineering. It’s really a niche discipline and a specialty area, so there are really not a lot of people who are trained in this type of design. When they think about companies like IDEO which are famous and have popularized the term “design thinking,” a lot of people liken human factors to design thinking. Of course, there are elements that cross over, so we’re very grateful to IDEO for popularizing the concept, but a lot of people miss that there’s a whole lot more to it—the science—and it’s more than just what people like and if they’re happy with a product experience.
[OnlineEducation.com] On that note, I love the cross-disciplinary nature of your approach. How did you start Sophic Synergistics?
[Cynthia Rando] It was very non-linear. I come from a very entrepreneurial family. Growing up, both of my parents were teachers and my dad owned his own company, and my first words as a kid were “North Shore Tours”—not “Mom” or “Dad”—because that’s what was going on in my house all the time. The phone was ringing off the hook. From a very early age, I was a child laborer—just kidding!—I just learned the value of working hard, and what it meant to achieve your dreams. Nobody’s going to bring it to you. I think we have a mixed perception these days, because we’ve popularized phrases like “follow your passion” and “do what you love.”
I had the great fortune to go to Clemson University in South Carolina. I had some really great advisors who said, “We think you’d be really, really good at this.” I got a full-ride to go get my master’s, and went on to get a job at NASA in 2004. I have hardware that’s flies on the International Space Station. I cannot complain.
While I was at NASA, I was doing some innovative things with human factors and design. I got noticed by another group that said, “You’re about to go to Boston for a little while. We think you’d be perfect to be the lead liaison in all these crowdsourcing companies.” This was back in 2007 or 2008. Nobody knew what crowdsourcing was. The government was facing big cutbacks and we had to solve the problem of how do we get the knowledge, expertise, and talent that we need without having to hire everybody? Crowdsourcing was the best option at the time. We deployed it across the government.
By the end of that, I started to see the synergy between human-centered design and business strategy. My company’s slogan is “Better Business by Design,” so focusing on designing better products and services and how you optimize the operations of your company to fit the humans really drives the success of your business. That’s another reason why I worked pro bono with the TMCx Accelerator. Human-centered design, or the lack thereof, will be the nail in the coffin of startups if they get it wrong—not the amount from investors or VCs. It’s about your ability to truly identify and meet the need, knowing your user demographic and knowing how to design effectively for that. That’s where I think human factors is also a catalyst for innovation. That was a long answer!
[OnlineEducation.com] I want to move to talk about the demographics of your clients. The thrust of our series, Women Breaking Barriers, is covering women who are working in industries that are traditionally male-dominated. Would you say that you’re typically one of the only women in your consulting meetings?
[Cynthia Rando] When I first began my career at NASA and was working on the product design team, I was usually one of maybe two or three women in the room. Very few work in an engineering role. Eventually that got a little bit better, but there was still a tendency towards male dominance. It made it very difficult because—I’ll just be very honest—I’ve always looked younger than I am, so when you get into an environment like that and you’re trying to be taken seriously as a woman in a technical field, perception is everything; that shapes our culture. So that works against you. I had blonde hair at the time and I’m short in stature. I hate to say this, but these things matter in terms of how people size you up and and assess what you bring to the table.
I remember my first year at NASA when people were just getting to know me, when they found out I had a master’s degree, and then later on, two master’s degrees, and you could see their whole mental model of who they thought I was just shatter. They didn’t know how to interact anymore. You unfortunately have to prove yourself. It’s just the nature of the beast in terms of human behavior and no regulations can override that. It’s like saying, “Here, I’m going to train you not to think the way you do,” and it just doesn’t work that way. It takes time and experience with people.
Now that it’s been almost 20 years in the industry, I still have some of those problems. I’m female; I’m very outspoken; I’m strong-willed; and I still have those physical characteristics. When I started my business, proving that I was there and I was a force to be reckoned with was a challenge. Now I’m about two years into it and it’s starting to get better; people are starting to call, but I’ll tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart. You’ve really got to want it, and you’ve really got to have confidence and faith in yourself.
The demographics of my clients are all over the map. If I talk to a traditional business strategist and I tell them I’m industry agnostic, they think I don’t know what I’m doing; in truth, my business is all about humans, so whenever there’s a product, service, or work environment where humans are, there are always utilities for human factors experts. It’s just the way it gets applied to that situation; it’s just different and very tailored. I work with clients in all industries, including VR, AR, airspace, and even law.
[OnlineEducation.com] Why do you think that women are underrepresented in engineering environments or specifically in VR and AR?
[Cynthia Rando] I think it starts from the beginning. So I’m older than I’d like to be at this point in time, but if I think back to when I was going through school, again, it’s a cultural thing. We didn’t push the science and engineering, especially my generation. I never was heavily encouraged to do this or that. It happened by accident. I just had the luck of being in front of good advisors who recognized the talent and need that I didn’t necessarily know about or seek out. I think it’s really important that teachers and parents really invest their time in working with kids to explore and experience stuff. I’m a real proponent of that. I like to work with the local universities as a real life company project to give them a chance to test themselves out in these waters, and also get exposed to other things. I think we should be doing more of that at all ages, not just having someone come in and talk about a career, but actually bringing these kids into working environments that give them a chance to do something or contribute.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you have for young women who are seeking to become entrepreneurs or work in any engineering capacity, especially in leadership?
[Cynthia Rando] I would say, don’t fear the unknown! You’ll get through it as long as you work hard. Always think you can. It’s so easy in this world with people who are skeptics and they’ll project those fears on you. Just believe in yourself and keep going. Don’t give up and you’ll get there. It’s not about being the best; it’s about being the most persistent and consistent, and not letting the negativity get to you. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Seek out people who are far, far ahead—or where you want to go—and start trying to meet with them or get time with them from an advisory perspective. Put yourself into groups that are far beyond where you think you are currently, but are on the trajectory of where you want to go, and that will help you through. You’ve got to go find those people in order to set yourself up for success.