The Friday Interview: Dr Genevieve Bell, Intel

1 Oct 2004

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if technological advancement didn’t get bogged down with issues such as people and users? If that were the case, Intel’s Genevieve Bell (pictured) would be out of a job. To say the least, Bell is not your average Silicon Valley staffer, being Australian and an anthropologist.

She occupies her current role having persuaded the chipmaker some years ago that it would be a good idea to employ social scientists working on a very different form of industry research.

How she does this is by a process called participant observation, a concept that she has jokingly dubbed “deep hanging out”. One of a 12-person team of psychologists, anthropologists and social scientists at Intel Research, she has spent the past three years conducting studies throughout Asia, visiting people in their homes and seeing how they interact with technology. She has conducted similar studies elsewhere in the world.

Intel is one of a number of companies that is engaging in this new kind of research, which is intended to bring a deeper understanding of how technology products are used, which in turn will feed back into the development of other products and how they will be marketed.

It’s part of a growing trend: technology and consumer goods firms such as Whirlpool, Samsung, LG, Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox are increasingly turning to social scientists to come up with answers – or questions, for that matter – that focus groups and market researchers are not equipped to provide.

Bell’s approach is refreshing; ask her what technologies have had a major influence on the world and she doesn’t think in terms of silicon on wafer or smart phones; her answer is more likely to cover the contraceptive pill or the pen. She has a view of technology and its place in the world that isn’t constrained by a North American way of thinking or a narrow series of assumptions.

It might be a different way of thinking to that normally employed in technology firms, but Bell rolls her eyes at the phrase ‘thinking out of the box’. She has no time for the view that there is only one way of doing things and anyone who tries a different path is simply seen as “leapfrogging” a couple of steps on the same journey.

She also rejects the idea that her job is simply to be a ‘cool hunter’ – someone who seeks out cutting-edge trends to guess what the 'next big thing' is going to be. Her work, she argues, is more lasting than that.

“Where once we were selling technology to people who are just like us, we are increasingly selling it to people who are less and less like us,” she relates in trademark rapid-fire style. “Social scientists get you to some of the answers but not all of them. Clearly there’s still a need for good scientific research, good engineering, good computer science, good marketing, good strategy. I think we’re one piece in that puzzle but we at least seem to be a piece rather than an afterthought.

“The more sophisticated your understanding of your end users are, the better experience you can deliver to them … and social scientists – whether they be psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists or designers – are one tool that business has for thinking about what people want and what they care about. Social scientists and anthropologists are trained to think about people, cultural practices, what makes people tick. That kind of rich understanding is what our discipline is about. The challenge for us is to take that rich understanding and translate it into a language that business understands,” she says.

Warming to her theme, Bell outlines how she reports back to headquarters and how her research is presented. “One of the things we do in our work at Intel is to challenge assumptions, to try to get people to think about and articulate what they’re assuming about their users; what they’re assuming about the experience they’re trying to support. And you do that with as many tools as you have at your disposal. Sometimes it means using statistics and giving people a different read of them; sometimes it means using digital photos and saying, “You think you know what a house looks like, well here’s a house” – and it looks completely different. “You think you know what a phone looks like?” Here’s a phone – hmm, not what you were expecting, was it?”

The technology industry is very fond of bringing to bear preconceived notions about the products it makes and the people who use them. Bell is happy to take a pin to this particular balloon where necessary. “You have to start to articulate the value proposition a little more than 'It’s fast’. MHz isn’t going to do it,” she laughs.

Bell also has a wake-up call for those who think that the PC as we know it represents the ultimate in ease of use. Comparing it to the mobile phone, she suggests that what marks a technology out as successful has less to do with lots of features and more to do with responding to basic human needs.

“It’s no surprise to me that mobile phones are in a billion hands around the world and computers aren’t. Because mobile phones are so much more readily transplantable from environment to environment: you don’t need to be literate to use them; you don’t have to have a metaphor in mind to make them work. The thing about computers, at least the way they’re currently imagined, is that they require some kind of glancing acquaintanceship with the idea of a desk that has things embedded in it such as files, folders, trash cans and inboxes. They’ve got a whole set of things attached to them that require a particular way of imagining the world.”

“[Successful technology] has to be relatively straightforward or simple. There has to be some ease of use or it has to be intuitive in some way, bearing in mind that that’s different in different places. When we think about what’s been successful and what hasn’t, we imagine it’s all sexy and snazzy but in some ways the things that have succeeded have been really simple,” she says.

“Phones deliver this incredibly simple, straightforward experience and you don’t need to know how it works to use it. Computers still have this remarkable capacity to make something that should be relatively straightforward far more complicated than it needs to be. If your fridge took as much work to get things out of it you probably wouldn’t use it.”

The lessons, Bell suggests, are there for a much wider constituency than just device makers. Ultimately, what works will not be the coolest technology but it will be what people want more than others. “If there is no social experience that the technology supports, whether that be work or personal, it won’t work. Technology for its own sake is rarely successful. When it is successful it’s successful with a very limited number of people who also think technology for its own sake is interesting. But it doesn’t get much past that. There’s got to be something that people care about.”

As governments everywhere rush to make public services e-enabled, the same considerations should be applied, Bell advises. “You cast your net as broadly as possible in understanding who your consumer/user/client base is. And that’s always a real challenge because partly it means thinking past our own comfort zones, ie thinking beyond us.”

The advantage of having travelled extensively has given Bell some insights into where the real innovation may be coming. She points out that there are 300 million mobile phones in China, but there are only 280 million people in the US. To put it another way, there will be more mobile phone users in China than there will ever be in America.

“When people ask what’s the next killer app for the mobile platform, I think it’s safe to say it may be one that doesn’t make sense in the West. That’s a tipping point I don’t think anybody has fully anticipated. And it’s true for the PC, we’re getting to that point, maybe five years from now, when the number of computers being used outside the West will exceed the number being used inside the West. [Intel VP] Sean Maloney has said that America is rapidly becoming a niche market for Intel technology. I think that’s a really radical statement and I don’t think anyone gets the import of why that’s so radical and so fascinating.”

But if the US is no longer the technological hub, what implications are there for Ireland? Does it follow that we must find something which suits the Irish experience or do we simply hope to piggy-back on developments in places that are reasonably like us?

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Bell candidly admits. “The reality of the marketplace seems to be that the notion of one technological solution for the planet is no longer even a reasonable goal. If we naively ever embraced that, we really have to stop it now. From form factors all the way down to platforms and back up to applications there are profoundly different models for what works in different places.

“The challenge is going to be to find things that are either transparent enough for local meaning to get written into them or actually designed for local markets. And that’s something I suspect we’ll start working out as time passes. But I don’t know what the immediate answer is. The US likes to imagine itself as the centre of innovation. I think it’s clear that that centre is seeing interesting challenges from places such as Japan, Korea, China, India, Scandinavia and the Middle East,” she points out.

By Gordon Smith

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