Intel's anthropological army

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

One of the pleasures of the Intel Developer Forum is that it demonstrates the diversity within modern technology companies. Like many large IT companies, Intel has tribes of anthropologists and social scientists on the books, and these people have considerable input on the way the company develops new products and platforms. The teams are especially prominent in Intel's efforts to develop new international markets and get technology into developing countries.

At a panel on Wednesday at this year's autumn Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, a group of researchers gave an overview of their work and interests, and how these are helping to develop the future of technology in different places.

Don't panic
Scott Mainwaring is a senior researcher in Intel's People and Practices Research (P&PR) group. "We look at new users and new usages for computing, and find new directions for Intel's business. We occasionally strike it rich with the spawning of entire new divisions such as digital health, but we won't form a new division every few years. We do try and look ahead of where the groups are, looking at cross-platform topics such as education and privacy, topics that no group is looking at, places where disruptive technologies might come up. One example of that was ubiquitous computing. Being within the Corporate Technology group gives us a chance to take risks, but we have a responsibility to feed good knowledge to other groups.".

The sound of inevitability
Ken Anderson is an anthropologist in P&PR. "I've been looking at people who live and work outside their native country. By number, [international firms] would make up the fifth largest country in the world, but they're a group that are often overlooked. One study recently looked at Ghana in West Africa. A third of all Ghanaians live outside the country, and remittances back home account for 25 percent of the GDP of the country, which seems very high but isn't unusual for developing nations. Technology has a profound effect on people. We met Mahmoud, who puts his telephone number above the doorway of the house he shares with his eight brothers, because his mobile phone is where he lives.

"And we looked at cultural groupings in London, Tokyo and Los Angeles, because we wanted to know whether there were greater similarities between people in those environments than differences. So we looked at 22 to 34 year old women, and there were great similarities. But then we checked women in Brazil, and there was a huge difference. Technology is a matter of life and death in big cities in Brazil, literally. Mobile phones were given to children, so they could be kept track of. But you don't take out a laptop in public, because you risked bodily harm from someone willing to steal it. Yet home computers were fantastic, because they kept the kids inside and engaged instead of being at risk outside."

Telling stories
Herman D'Hooge is part of the User Centered Design Group. "Engineers are trained to solve problems, not follow stories. We take the knowledge from the field about people, and translate it into engineer-friendly specifications.

"What we do first of all is capture the user and their context in "personas", which defines what the person is and where they are. The second stage is user-centred design, what makes the persona happy. A good example of that is the India Community PC, which was designed for reliability in a rural community. What triggered that was a description of a target user and a target use — seeing an image of a person..."

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"...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."