Keeping An Eye On You
Hillsboro, Ore. --Genevieve Bell was finishing up her doctorate in anthropology and a dissertation on American Indian ethnography at Stanford University when a brief conversation with a stranger in a Palo Alto bar changed her life. It was 1998, a year in which Bay Area taverns were packed with technology entrepreneurs. Bell made quite an impression on the stranger, a techie who tracked her down the next day and implored her to call his Intel contacts who were looking for anthropologists.
She did and hasn't regretted it. An outspoken, saucy Australian, Bell, 38, stands out in the drab, Dilbert-esque office park outside Portland, one of several that house 15,500 Intel employees. It seems an unusual fit, this Ph.D. in anthropology and a manufacturer of semiconductor chips. After all, Bell had been groomed for academia; a Macintosh user, she knew little about technology. Intel was a place where people went around saying things like "We've got to make killer apps that will suck MIP s," Bell recalls. (Translation: Intel wants to make products that will use a lot of processing power.) "I already knew how to be a professor," says Bell. "I thought if I don't try this, I'll never know what it was like."
Anthropologists have historically had an important role in corporate America, whether it's helping Procter & Gamble understand how consumers use dishwashing liquid or teaching Xerox that copiers need a big green "start" button. Cultural anthropologists are also on staff at most large technology companies, including Microsoft and British Telecom. At IBM, the research group that includes anthropologists and other social scientists has grown from eight in 2003 to 60 today.
Not about chips. At Intel, which wasn't used to having a direct relationship with its end users, the challenges for an anthropologist were not simple. In 1998, Bell joined the People and Practices research group, which then had one anthropologist, four psychologists, and a couple of computer experts. Their objective was to make the global company think about people. "It's not just about making chips for chips' sake," she says. "It's about understanding the products they will power, and you need to know what a machine will do not only technically, but culturally and socially as well."
The first task was to convince Intel that technology is used in dramatically different ways around the world. That quest ultimately led Bell to Asia for the better part of two years, where she observed middle-class families at home to understand how they used technology and how they might benefit from it if they didn't. Her research influenced the creation of the China Home Learning PC. She helped create a mock-up of a Chinese living room so Intel engineers could observe how the Chinese lived in small quarters and which parts of their homes were most important. The computer is smaller than a typical desktop, with English and Mandarin characters, and it includes a lock so parents can make sure their children can only access educational content while studying.
While she is proud of her contributions to the Chinese PC, Bell concedes that it is rare her research leads to product development. But she says she adds value in indirect ways. The Asia research, for example, was also presented to Intel's venture-capital team to help it choose investments, and it is used by the sales and marketing team to localize marketing messages. Engineers also use it to guide research and development efforts.
Intel recently restructured its departments by platform rather than product line, and Bell has landed in the new Digital Home Group. She plans to hire about 10 social scientists and designers to help determine which products might make life easier inside homes. "Twenty years ago, Intel was all about building a better chip," says Don MacDonald, vice president of Intel's Digital Home Group and Bell's boss. "Now the focus is on the customer. Genevieve has insight into how people behave and she is able to translate that for our technologists. It's better to understand who you are developing a product for before you put any resources into it."
Multiple users. What types of problems might Bell's group address? The son of an elderly mother living alone in another state might want to know if she hasn't opened her door or turned on her TV lately, giving the notion of a networked home new meaning. In many villages in India, as many as 20 people might share a computer to shop, creating a need for a billing system that can be used by everyone.
Bell, who says she is incapable of taking a vacation because "anthropology is not a career; it is in your blood," is eager to get started on her new assignment with research trips to Japan, Africa, and elsewhere. In the seven years she has been with Intel, she hasn't looked back. "I stand the chance of influencing what technology looks like all over the world, making sure it's meaningful and appropriate," she says. "That's as close a chance as ever I'll get at changing the world."
As for those MIP s ("million instructions per second"), Bell still doesn't know what they are. But it doesn't bother her in the least.
This story appears in the June 20, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.