Intel's anthropological army

Summary:Social scientists employed by the chipmaker have made some startling discoveries about how people really use technology

"...struggling in a daily task is inspiring and useful. So we create a usage model, a description of how a system will be used and how it will respond. Then we indulge in ideation — which is another word for brainstorming, a creative process to come up with a whole set of solutions. We use storyboards, sketching, anything that encourages creative thinking. Then the product starts to become tangible, we can model it up and take it back to the people who match the personas. That way we can tell whether it works in the context and environment we first identified. Create user requirements first, then the product."

Spiking the supply
Eric Brewer, Director of Intel Researcher Berkeley (IRB). "I like to ask the question about new ideas — what if you want to change the core technology as well? At IRB we work out what changes in technology would be like to see in addition to products and platforms. It's not a question that's been asked much. We assume that Western technology is automatically suitable for the rest of the world, and sometimes it is — a chip design works everywhere. But things like wireless and connectivity work very differently in rural environments.

"Take electrical power; places called electrified by the United Nations may have low quality power. It's good enough for lighting and cooking, but they're tolerant of very low quality... so large numbers of officially electrified places are no good to Intel, at least not for the sort of technology we're used to. When we were investigating rural India, we checked out the power by putting in a data logger. The worst we saw was a 1000V spike, which would have crippled a normal PC. We know anecdotally that this is a real problem, because our researchers have lost cellular and laptop power supplies in India due to mains problems. You might think that an uninterruptible power supply would help, but they're not very good when you've got poor power rather than no power. There's a lot of new thinking needed.".

Digital domesticity
Genevieve Bell, who is starting up the Domestic Designs and Technology Research Digital Home group. "Digital Home is a bit of a misnomer. There are 1.6 billion households worldwide, and not one digital home. And homes already exist, you won't build a digital home and have people move in. I find different ways to look at things that seem familiar: TV as a cultural object, women and technology, spaces that push the edges of what is a domestic space, looking at backpacking and mobile homes, tents to mansions, places at the extremes of domesticity.

"It's tempting to talk about the digital divide as being concerned with ethnicity and the developed versus the developing world, but it also happens at home and it's connected with class. And you assume that because there's a PC in the house anyone can use it; not necessarily. Anyone over 40 in China doesn't know Pinyin, the system you use to type on a computer. Even education is seen differently in different places; in China, it's a matter of bringing your family forward through your work and getting good fortune."

Topics: Innovation


Rupert has worked at ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair, Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. He can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em. If you want to promote your company or product, fine -- but pl... Full Bio

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