Thursday, September 8, 2011

The virtue of the outsider

One of the reasons I think being an anthropologist in the tech world is essential is that it offers a critical eye that often gets lost in the tech world bubble. As a researcher at a health tech startup, I saw firsthand how easily the Bay Area and those within the tech sector presume a lot about the role of technology in everyday lives. For example, the iPad 2 had just been released, and the company's leaders were convinced that all the doctors were wondering what they were going to do with their new gadget. A day or two at a specialty conference made patently clear to me that most doctors in the U.S. were not fretting about the newest Apple gadget. Some Bay Area (and elsewhere) physicians were excited to be on the cutting-edge of mobile devices, but for most MDs, the iPad (1 or 2) was not a core element of their daily concerns. This doesn't mean that the technology won't become well-integrated into physicians' practices, and it is important to have an eye to future technology engagement when building a new product. But hyper-familiarity with certain practices and processes can lead to the inability to understand how and why users might engage with a new product. Some naysayers point to Steve Jobs' unwillingness to do user research, but I think this misses the point. It's not that we need more focus groups or direct market research to understand users' interpretation of technology or a new tool, but rather we need a more nuanced and complex understanding of users' behaviors to anticipate and to improve on existing tools.

Intel is a company that understands that broader research questions can be amazingly informative. Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel's director of User Experience, is one of the lead anthropologists in the private sector. Her role at Intel and Intel's willingness to include an anthropologist as a key leader in their company demonstrate the company's foresight. Bell's work contributes to the very dynamic that I think is far too absent in the tech world. It's not that every company needs their staff anthropologists, but rather that the interdisciplinary nature of Intel's User Experience department is a sign of creative thinking and the willingness to imagine the world as radically different than just an American-centric world. It's easy to forget that mobile tools outside of the U.S. may have different meanings and utility for their users. The Intel approach has pushed its developers to think about technology in Western China or among the aging population, reminding the people who design and build the products that not everyone uses technology in the same ways. The first four minutes of this video-cast is worth skipping, but here's a chance to hear what Dr. Bell does at Intel and why it matters. If this episode has been updated (I can't find a direct link to the show), it's episode 41.

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