This post was originally published on Forbes.com on July 16, 2015.
Those of us who think about bringing outside-in perspectives to brands are quite familiar with Dr. Genevieve Bell. Others may recognize her from the 2014 New York Times profile. Formally, she is an Intel Fellow and a Vice President in the Corporate Strategy Office and is one the company’s most prominent social scientists who focuses on user experience. When she joined the company some 15 years ago, she started in Intel’s advanced R&D lab, worked in the product group and headed the company’s first UX (user experience) group before a second tour in the R&D lab. About a year ago, she moved into the corporate strategy office, where she reports to Intel’s Chief Strategy Officer, Ken Berryman. Along the way, she’s been honored as one of Fast Company’s 2010 “100 Most Creative People In Business,” inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 2012, and received the 2013 Woman of Vision for Leadership award by the Anita Borg Institute.
In this Q&A, the first of two parts, Bell and I talk about her role at Intel, the evolving value of social science in corporate settings, and how outside-in perspectives are infused throughout the company.
How do you describe your role?
My role here is to help think about when would we recognize a strategic insight, a foresight, outside-in sort of thinking, and my job is really to do what in some ways what I’ve always done: How do we maintain a critical perspective about what’s going on outside the building and how do we use that to inform what we are doing. It’s very much about how do we think through what the larger context of compute might be over the next decade. For me, as a sort of cultural anthropologist, the point of view I’m always trying to bring to bear there is one about who’s ultimately using this stuff, what are they trying to get done with it, what are gonna be their continued pain points–as well as their aspirations–and what are the consequences for the shifts in our technology landscape? That’s my job broadly cast.
But it’s also was remembering that, like a number of big tech companies, there are other senior social scientists and designers inside Intel that do similar work. There is a group inside our marketing team who very much think about consumer insights and about how it relates to our product line and the future of those product lines. There’s a team who are really thinking about what are the key experiences that Intel means to deliver over the next couple of years and how do we make sure that we are building the right technology, the building blocks to deliver that.
There seems to be this mandate at Intel to actively embrace an outside-in perspective. Where does that come from?
It was very much driven by the impulse that said, historically, the people who’ve consumed our technology looked a lot like us, but they’re not anymore and we don’t know who they are. That was actually a surprisingly forward-looking moment for a company. When Bryan Krzanich became the CEO, one of his guiding principles is that we always need to be paying attention to the outside. He is very interested in what he would call the outside-in point of view and how we can have a crisper and clearer understanding of that. He cares about that across a number of domains. The one that I get to care about exclusively is about this marketing experience piece. How do we do a better job of being what, my colleague David Ginsberg [VP in the Corporate Strategy Office] and I would describe as being market-inspired, experience-driven and then technology-delivered?
“One of the things that user experience research when done in-depth provides is it gives you a moment where you can see something you know like you’re seeing it for the first time again.”
–Dr. Genevieve Bell
Now, can you talk a little bit about how that all that intelligence get brought into Intel in a way that’s useful, impacting what gets made, how things are made or how the company talks to consumers?
Social science research was so radical for a company like Intel when I started 15 or so years ago. When we were first doing user research people were like, “You talk to people, what people? Oh my God, what do they say?” It was differently disruptive, right? We took photos of all the people we interviewed. We’d take prime quotes from those interviews, and stick them on poster board and we put them up in the cubes. So that every time you went down the corridor you couldn’t help but be faced with people telling you stuff, and that was considered to be radical.
Now, less so. There is still a bunch of field work done around the company. Some of it is still focus groups. Some of it is bringing people into the lab show them stuff and see how they respond to it. The way in which we use that data is similarly diverse. Some of it is you come back and say, “Listen, I want to bring you into a session where we talk about what we have seen at a mostly unstructured data level. We’re going to show you photos, we’re going to give you transcripts, we’re going to show you maps of people’s houses and tell you where the stuff was and what they said about it.”
Sometimes that’s really useful when you’re talking about technologies that people either think they understand because they have it themselves or where their notion of the use is very particular and doesn’t necessarily scale. One of the things that user experience research when done in-depth provides is it gives you a moment where you can see something you know like you’re seeing it for the first time again, like you can have the moment where it’s new or where it’s unexpected or awful. Accomplishing that’s often quite tricky, particularly with things that people already know. How do you show people photos of what people are actually doing with smart home technology when you imagine that many of the people that you’re working with have that stuff in their homes but haven’t particularly used them. The stuff people tell us is often really useful at an engineering level: How do we let you see some of the affordances that human beings are working through and around?
How do you then engage people with that? Sometimes it’s long term partnerships, sometimes it’s a report, sometimes it is a series of reports. Sometimes it’s a–here’s an insight on the way it ties across multiple things and again that runs the gamut from all the boring stuff: Powerpoint, Keynote, videos, white papers…
This goes out to a broad slice the company, right? Not just engineering, but marketing, manufacturing, and strategy?
Well, it depends what we’re talking about. We certainly have corporate level activities that are designed to share across multiple people and groups. As we really got interested in this kind of market-inspired, experience-driven, technology-delivered transition we had to think about what are the forums you could create that would start to bring that outside-in point of view into the conversation more regularly. One of the things we now do–common to many companies–is that we have time with our executive leadership once a quarter, and we bring them a point of view from the outside the company.
How does that work?
We do a gist of a scan of all the demographic, psycho-demographic, social-technical stuff that’s interesting. Here’s the stuff that happened in the last quarter or that is beginning and seems interesting that we feel we should be paying attention to because it will change our thinking later. We also engage in a deep-dive, curated conversation with a point of view in it about threads that seems interesting. For example, changing ideas about privacy and data; ideas about personal production and the maker movement; ideas about changing landscapes of work and how people think about work.
That conversation happens with our executive leadership team, but then we webcast a version of that out to the entire employee base. So once a quarter the entire employee base can choose to participate in an outside-in point of view about the things in the market that seemed relevant and interesting. I really like it because it means you have to pay attention to what’s going on in the world. But it’s also about why certain things are interesting and what we would sometimes – David Ginsberg and I, he’s sort of my partner in crime in much of this—what we would call whispers, where the stuff that makes you think there’s something underneath that’s really interesting. We’re not quite sure what that thing is yet, but oooh…There’s a there, there.