“I remember sitting in a meeting in the first year of my role, being asked, ‘Genevieve, what do women want?’ It was such a huge question, I jokingly replied ‘green’,” laughs Intel Labs vice president and social anthropologist Genevieve Bell of her early days at the company. “I didn’t think they’d take me seriously, but the next meeting they arrived with a green version of the product.”
Clearly the company put a lot of stock into what she said. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, they chased her down for seven months before she agreed to leave her position as lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University to come on board.
After 16 years with Intel, Genevieve sums up her current role as director of user experience research rather neatly. “I’m a human zoologist, a professional observer and an analyst,” she says, adding she is “resolutely not a typical techie.”
“I manage a team of over a hundred researchers, social scientists and designers who travel the world watching how normal people interact with technology,” she says. She then takes that information and turns it into something useful for the company.
Equally at home chatting about the contents of people’s car boots (“most drivers in America carried wrapping paper, Sellotape and spare greetings cards in their cars, so they’d never be embarrassed by turning up empty handed at an event”), the ways in which people in Shanghai use hot water (to shower but not to wash clothes or dishes) and the history of robots, Genevieve is a SXSW regular and will take the stage at the REMIX Summit in Sydney this June.
Fundamentally, it’s her job to tap into the mind of a consumer and she does it “the old-fashioned way,” meeting people where they are. Literally.
“I’ve learned if you ask someone to fill in a questionnaire, they often just tell you what you want to hear. They’re not necessarily trying to deceive you but they want you to think well of them. In someone’s home or office they can’t stop the world from happening.
“They can’t stop the baby from throwing up, the dogs from running around or their husband from complaining because he has to take out the recycling. It is these everyday – and some could say mundane – problems and complaints we need to be solving,” she says adding it could be as simple as, “making mobile phones sturdier so they don’t break when a child drops them.”
Right now Genevieve’s current project revolves around consumer anxiety, what frightens people and how that can be solved with technology. “In my opinion, the focus of our fear is shifting. We used to fear the device itself but now our anxiety is centred on the systems inside them. Should we be worried that a piece of software knows us? Should we be concerned when Google wishes us happy birthday?”
Well, should we? “Many common consumer concerns revolve around privacy, security and the sharing of personal data without our permission. There is a responsibility to companies to listen to the anxiety of consumers; otherwise we risk a backlash against technology. Just advising people to regularly change their passwords is no longer enough, we need to do more to ease their fears.”
While the future’s uncertain, it’s comforting to know Genevieve’s one of the people steering the (space)ship. “I think the most important thing I’ve done during my time with Intel is change the way the company views its purpose. They used to see themselves as a building block of the Internet economy. Now their mission is to ‘touch and enrich the lives of every person on the planet’. When that shift occurred I knew I was making progress.”
Genevieve Bell is speaking at this year’s REMIX Summit in Sydney, running from June 2-3. Find out more and book tickets here.