Recently we had a chance to talk to Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and researcher. She is the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research. We talked with her about social research, myths, design research and several other interesting subjects.
Dianna Miller: I heard you speak a year or so after you joined Intel about the home studies your team conducted in China. Can you talk about how Intel envisioned the contribution of social research in 1998 when you started there? How has it changed over time?
Genevieve Bell: The impulse to hire social scientists generally—and anthropologists in particular—arose in the 1990s at Intel as markets the company had traditionally served changed and grew beyond recognition. If you can remember back that far (it seems forever ago), it was a time when the PC was starting to move from office and work functions into the home. It wasn’t precisely clear what people would do with computers during this shift. Intel hired social scientists to help explore what might happen. In the vernacular of my office at the time, it was all about “finding new users and new usages” for technology. We looked at emerging middle-class households in urban Asia and their complicated relationships to new information and communication technologies; we studied health-care providers, in homes and hospitals, and mapped their uses of digital devices and analog ones; we studied classrooms and televisions, teenagers and families with small kids. We spent a lot of time educating and engaging the engineers and other decision makers about what life was like beyond the walls of the company – it was exhilarating and exhausting.
These days I have a new research group at Intel – Interaction and Experience Research. Comprised of nearly one hundred researchers, running the gamut from ethnographers and interaction designers to computer scientists and physicists, my group is charged with reinventing how we experience computing. As Justin Rattner, my boss and Intel’s Chief Technology Officer likes to point out, we are “already late,” by which he means our relationships with computing are long due for an overhaul. We have a strongly interdisciplinary approach that shapes everything from framing questions to the projects we tackle and how we choose to share our thinking. Currently, we are exploring changing notions of storytelling and social participation; charting the shift in use of cameras, phones, and televisions; and hacking the latest screens, printers, and sensors to see what we can make with them, just to name some of our work.
DM: In your book, “Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing,” you and Paul Dourish discuss the distinction between the mythology that has shaped values and vision in ubiquitous computing, and the messiness of everyday experience. What are examples of these myths and messes, and why is it important for designers to understand both?
GB: Oh, such a good question. As an anthropologist, I also think about this as the difference between cultural ideal and cultural practice. In either case, there are many examples. Take security. We design systems to keep systems safe and people write their passwords on bits of paper stuck to their systems. So, is it that people don’t care about security or is that the security we are designing is securing the wrong things? Or, are they just securing them in the wrong ways? Clearly we know that people care about the security of their homes, their possessions, their digital selves, but they adopt a range of patterns for doing it that are incredibly messy, complicated, and contradictory. Not to mention that in other cultural traditions beyond the west, sometimes it is not as much about security as it is about courting good fortune, about diminishing the barriers to good fortune finding you. What does a system look like that courts good fortune or allows security to be about writing passwords on post-it notes?
DM: On the subject of messiness, designers are stepping up to challenges that address cultural, technological, and political complexity. We’re not only collaborating with other disciplines, but our work itself is becoming transdisciplinary. What do you see as the strengths and limitations of the designer’s contribution? What do we need to be aware of?
GB: I think our biggest challenges (and opportunities) are about creating the possibilities of collaboration. For me, that means we need to invest in making our work, our methods, and our insights intelligible to the broadest possible base. Being transdisciplinary means committing to work across disciplines and across cannons and methodologies. It means we have to be generous and genuine and always committed to moving the conversation forward. I suspect it also means that what we do will necessarily grow and evolve, which is great. We can learn from all our encounters and improve what we do. And, I think it also means we need to let go of the memories of every time it didn’t work well in the past. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, but I think we have to look forward with hope and optimism.
DM: What new skills and knowledge should interaction designers who’ve been focused on screen-based projects be developing now to design for smart objects and environments?
GB: I think there is a lot to be gained for reading the work in material culture from neo-Marxism through the Manchester School and the various American reinterpretations of cultural studies. There is much to be gained from the theoretical perspectives that have been rehearsed in that body of work. I think we need to continue to privilege thinking holistically. Even if you are not designing for the whole system or the whole environment, I suspect you need to understand it. For me, that means we also need to attend to ideas of power, both social and political, as it has much to do with these news spaces we find ourselves exploring.
DM: What new tools and methods is your team exploring to study emergent behavior and relationships between space, infrastructure, culture, and experience?
GB: Most excitingly for me, we have been experimenting with processual and post-processual archaeology and returning to a material culture bent. We have been excavating cars of late, in the classic archaeological sense. It’s been fascinating to think about the flow and traces of objects that are in those cars, move through them, and stubbornly resist materializing there.
DM: Which areas of research do we still need to put more focus on?
GB: I think we have a great deal more work to do, which is good because I like research. We have spent a lot of time focusing on the obvious and the obviously sexy stuff – mobility, gaming, social networks, and of course the individual and youth. We have, as a consequence, neglected the other stuff of daily life – religion, spirituality, love, child-care, anyone over 40, who does the dishes, who puts out the recycling, community, the nation-state, changing ideas of citizenship.
DM: There are still development organizations that are hesitant to invest in design research partly because they perceive it as either too time-consuming or expensive. What advice do you give to experience design teams that are attempting to convince their organization of the value of social research and generative design methods?
GB: I think you need stubbornness and patience in equal parts. It takes time and a lot of repeated conversations. After all, this is about organizational change and that tends to come slowly.
Genevieve Bell will be one of the keynote speakers at Interaction 12. It is the fifth annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Dublin, Ireland.