Charles Mauro

feature / alumni / industrial-design
May 16, 2019
Writer: Mike Winder
Images courtesy of Charles Mauro

Down to a Science: Charles Mauro's expertise in neuroscience-based design research dates back to his ArtCenter education

In the not too distant future, neuroscience and design patent law will completely transform the world of design, says alumnus Charles Mauro (BS 71 Product Design), president and founder of Mauro Usability Science, an international consulting firm that touches nearly every industry and product category. Founded in 1975, the firm’s client list ranges from Apple and Google to NASA and Goldman Sachs.

Mauro has received several major awards, including an IDSA Personal Recognition Award, and has served as an expert witness in design and ergonomics in more than 75 major design patent and utility patent cases, where he has represented design-driven corporations like Dyson and Microsoft. He wrote the primary amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court for the Apple v. Samsung case, which was signed by several design luminaries, including Dieter Rams.

“What I learned at ArtCenter, that ability to focus intensely on a problem and develop the highest quality solution possible, dramatically informed my view of science and research,” says Mauro, who credits his alma mater for his success. “ As it turns out, my legal thinking regarding design protection and design patents has also been driven by concepts I acquired at ArtCenter.”

Charles Mauro (second from left) at ArtCenter during a sink project critique.
Charles Mauro (second from left) at ArtCenter during a sink project critique.

It Started At ArtCenter

Mauro came to ArtCenter from a small town in Colorado “with only enough savings to make it through one year,” he says, and adds that he was admitted to the College on probation due to “less than stellar” grades. “I was probably not the most promising ArtCenter candidate that year,” says Mauro. “Out of pure naiveté, my plan was to either win a full scholarship after my first year or to go back to the University of Colorado.”

Despite his first week at ArtCenter being “one of the most terrifying experiences of my young life” and realizing that “most of my classmates were far more talented artistically,” Mauro stuck it out at the College. Fast forward a few years and his interest in neuroscience-based research had already taken root.

In 1971, inspired by a class he was taking at USC taught by a distinguished organizational psychologist, Mauro proposed to his ArtCenter instructor, Harry Bradley, the idea of doing a research-based study as his final project. “The USC professor had developed a number of theories about the quality of solutions that flow from team collaboration,” says Mauro, adding that his final project concept received serious pushback from many at the College. “My advisors kept saying, ‘This is a design school. Why are you interested in research?’ But Harry, with a strong measure of skepticism, allowed me to proceed.”

For his study, Mauro took his ArtCenter classmates, split them into three groups, gave each group the same problem to solve, and then recorded certain observed group interactions. The results clearly showed that conducting structured behavioral research could predict the quality of the solutions. “In other words, design problem solving was the same as engineering, science and even public policy,” says Mauro, who graduated from the College with distinction.

ArtCenter alumnus Charles Mauro (BS 71 Product Design)
Alumnus Charles Mauro (BS 71 Product Design)

A Move To New York

Things moved quickly from there. He landed a job at New York-based Henry Dreyfuss Associates, a leader in design research and the firm responsible for many iconic designs ranging from the Westclox Big Ben Alarm Clock to 20th Century Limited’s New York Central Hudson locomotive. “Being new, I was cast in the role of an entry level industrial designer,” says Mauro, who worked on big accounts like John Deere, Singer and Polaroid. “But I was immediately drawn to the research the firm was conducting.”

At the time, Dreyfuss had been publishing major work on the human body regarding its size and functional limitations, says Mauro. He remembers begging the senior partner he reported to, Niels Diffrient—the acclaimed designer of several iconic ergonomic chairs for Knoll and HumanScale—to allow him to work on the firm’s research projects. In the end, Mauro says, Diffrient relented. “He told me I could work on the research projects on my own time but that I still had to maintain all my design projects,” recalls Mauro. “Which I did, with great pleasure.”

While at Dreyfuss, Mauro learned of a graduate program at New York University (NYU) being funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Five different medical schools were each given $10 million by NIOSH—NYU being one of them—with the purpose of developing programs related to ergonomics and workplace safety. “I applied to the program thinking, ‘Okay, this is a long shot, but it could be interesting,’” Mauro recalls.

Interesting it was. Out of the approximately 30 students admitted into the program—which involved studying biomechanics, anatomy, psychology, physiology, research methods, statistics and human factors in the medical school for three years—Mauro was the only industrial designer. “My ArtCenter education served me so well,” says Mauro, who built one of the first computer-based platforms that incorporated force-sensing technology and electromyography for his master’s thesis project. “I knew how to dissect, visualize and work through a problem in ways that the other students didn’t.”

Mauro says his ability to rapidly develop functional sketches of the human body was viewed with awe by his colleagues. “They thought it was magic, when at ArtCenter such expertise was freshman faire,” he says with a laugh, adding that the style of open critique as practiced at ArtCenter—in which everyone shows their work without apology—also proved extremely valuable in his graduate studies. “At NYU, if there was something important to be learned from another student it was lost to all because of the closed structure of scientific study. I noticed this immediately when I entered the program, and that led me to develop design research methodologies to address this problem.”

Charles Mauro (center) pictured with theYuri Soloviev (far left), director of Soviet design research institute All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNITTE); American designer Raymond Loewy (far right); Loewy
Charles Mauro (center) pictured with theYuri Soloviev (far left), director of Soviet design research institute All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNITTE); American designer Raymond Loewy (far right); Loewy's wife Viola Erickson wife (second from left); and a translator (second from right) from the Russian project.

To Russia, With Loewy

Just as Mauro was graduating from NYU, the firm of legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy began looking for an experienced designer with a graduate degree in ergonomics. “At that time, I believe I was the only industrial designer in the country with such a degree from a rigorous research program,” says Mauro. 

Loewy’s firm had just landed a groundbreaking government exchange program related to industrial design of products. This was during the detente between the Soviet Union and the United States, adds Mauro. He assumed a leadership position on this program that required combining ergonomic research with industrial design. While working on the project, he took numerous trips to the Soviet Union—traveling personally with Raymond Loewy—to present design solutions to large teams of Russian engineers and political leaders. That experience, Mauro says, was life changing. “I saw first-hand how these brilliant Russian engineers were marginalized and stifled by a political system that failed to understand how freedom of thought and expression leads to innovation,” says Mauro. “On my final flight out of Moscow, I knew strongly that I would both respect and maximize the freedom of the U.S. democratic system. I still feel the same way today.” 

Mauro’s experience in Russia led him to fulfilling a lifelong vision: starting a firm that combined robust science on human factors performance with the rigorous design expertise he learned at ArtCenter. He launched Mauro Usability Science in 1975 and quickly discovered there were three main industries interested in his firm’s expertise—the U.S. military, medical technology, and Wall Street. The latter brought Mauro one of his firm’s defining projects.

Mauro's NYU colleagues were impressed by his ability to create functional sketches of the human body. “They thought it was magic," laughs Mauro. "At ArtCenter such expertise was freshman faire.”

Wiring In To Wall Street

In 1998, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) approached him with a complex problem. “At the time, trades were executed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange through a very crude electronic system combined with paper tickets,” says Mauro, describing the now outmoded trade negotiations that relied on physical posts (locations) manned by traders and brokers yelling at one another to negotiate a trade price and trade quantity. “Given the increase in net asset value of corporations and trading volume, the NYSE had determined that within three to four years they were going to have to double or triple the size of the trading floor if they continued to utilize the same trading structure and human interfaces.” 

The NYSE had already spent four years working on a screen-based trading interface to address the problem. “IBM, HP and other major management consulting firms all tried to solve this problem, and they had all failed,” says Mauro, who adds that when he started working on the project that the NYSE had already started acquiring real estate in lower Manhattan, believing they would have to start building a new trading floor.

“The big problem was more about social psychology than it was about human factors,” says Mauro, explaining how his firm spent six months researching the culture on the trading floor, understanding the tasks and, most importantly, understanding the hierarchy behind trade negotiations. “The trading floor at that time was a teeming brew of informal and formal trading rules and procedures optimized strictly for the benefit of floor traders who made massive profits from the system.”

But the scale and growth of the market demanded a new technology-based trading system that included the human component as well as a new trade execution system. “It was a classic man-machine system design problem with huge economic and political impact,” says Mauro. “It was the sort of project you encounter very rarely in a career, or even a lifetime.”

Mauro’s firm tackled the problem by developing and prototyping the electronic trading system that utilized the prior learning and training of the traders while taking advantage of an electronic trading infrastructure. The key to the success of the program was understanding that any solution, no matter how good technically, was bound to fail unless it was matched with the personal, social psychological and hierarchical nature of the trading floor ecosystem. “We figured out how to sell the system to the most powerful and influential traders on the floor first," says Mauro. “Those traders then went on to sell it to the next ones, and the next ones up and down the trading floor hierarchy.”

The new system was delivered to the entire trading floor three months ahead of schedule and on budget. This was an object lesson for Mauro and his team on how to define, create and disseminate a complex user interface solution. Mauro says they learned that the only effective way of ensuring adoption and operational success was to first understand the existing skills of the users and to then use technology to enhance those skills. “We learned that you should never develop a technology-based solution that expects users to  unlearn and relearn entirely new tasks and decision-making models,” explains Mauro. “And this lesson is even more valid today as products pack massive functionality into smaller and smaller form factors.” 

In the end, the system succeeded, making it possible for the NYSE to triple their trading volume on the existing trading floor, saving  the Exchange billions of dollars. The system also made it possible to train individuals to work on the floor as a trader or specialist in three months, rather than three years. Furthermore, critical trading errors decreased substantially. “That work got us wired into Wall Street,” says Mauro, the primary inventor on several high performance trading interfaces, who adds that it was once estimated that 50% of all the equities and futures trades executed on a global basis flowed through user interface concepts he developed. “That amounts to trillions of dollars a day.” 

Analyzing microfacial expressions and mapping neurophysiological acitvity are just a few of the tools available to companies conducting usability research.
Analyzing microfacial expressions and mapping neurophysiological acitvity are just a few of the tools available to companies conducting usability research.

Building A New Toolset

“Then 9/11 happened and all of my work for Wall Street was essentially wiped out, literally overnight,” says Mauro, whose office was located close to the World Trade Center. “And it never returned, because all the large Wall Street firms that we were developing optimized trading systems instantly had a new priority. And that priority was figuring out how to get out of New York and minimize the risk of another attack taking their business down long term.”

With the financial world looking to build alternate trading floors in other locations and a new focus on automation, the demand on Wall Street for expertise in machine and human interaction disappeared. “We had a period of about five years which were really difficult because we had to shift industries and refocus,” says Mauro. “We started working much more broadly on websites and various forms of hand-held devices, and developing neuroscience-based research methodologies that could be applied to any type of product or system design.” 

Today, a bevy of companies look to Mauro Usability Science for their expertise in user experience and user interface optimization. “Usability research used to be about handing a product to a user, putting them in a lab, giving them a task, recording it, and getting their personal impressions,” says Mauro, adding that today’s systems allow companies to track eye movements utilize 3D spatial tracking, Electromyography, cognitive workload analysis, microfacial expression analysis, map neurophysiological activity with EEG, and more. “We can peer very deeply into preferences, motivations, errors, satisfaction and many different variables that have been virtually impossible to tap into historically.” Many of the new design research methodologies have been adopted from other research disciplines including neurosurgery, sports medicine, neuroimaging and a wide range of consumer psychology applications. 

“These are the same tools that some companies are just beginning to utilize in the creation of high levels of engagement with their products and services,” says Mauro, adding that his firm recently conducted neuroscience-based research to understand which device design attributes of smartphones might lead to addictive behaviors—research that could have implications for the design of all hand-held, complex devices moving forward. 

Mauro says there’s a big potential application for these types of methodologies not only in design but in public policy. “How is this technology utilized? How is it propagated? How is it regulated? How is it protected from an intellectual property perspective?” asks Mauro. “Neuroscience-based design research can address all of these needs in a far more objective and scientific manner.”