The knowledge gained by Intel Corp.'s People and Practices Research Group is translated into insights that have had a strong influence on the company's overall corporate strategies and technology development.
The research group is composed of a team of nonengineers--from ethnographers to anthropologists to psychologists--that employs the principles of social science to develop a deep understanding of how people live and work.
"We hire people who understand people," said the group's director, Maria Bezaitis. "We start in the social world and work our way back to technology."
The group has spawned ethnographic teams that are now embedded in three of Intel's current five divisions: the Digital Home Group, the Digital Health Group and the Channel Products Group.
"Intel's ethnography research has successfully influenced many organizational changes at Intel," said Bezaitis. "We have identified the need for specific solutions and strategies for the digital health care group, the channel platform group and others."
One of the most recent successes for the research group has been the creation of the first platform designed specifically for health care, the Mobile Clinical Assistant. MCA was designed to fulfill needs identified by extensive ethnographic research into hospital work flow that included hundreds of interviews conducted with nurses and doctors. It is currently being beta-tested by nurses at hospitals around the world.
Current focus areas under way at People and Practices include one based on almost three years of social scientists' observations of people using mobile electronic devices worldwide. For example, group researcher Joanna Brewer visited the London Underground (subway), where she spent months making observations and conducting interviews.
"When we studied the nonfunctional aspects [of the subway]--its aesthetics--we discovered three surprising things about it," said Brewer. "One, a subway is a design space, because people want to have a beautiful experience--it's not just about efficiency. Secondly, people want diversity--they like carrying around a bunch of [dedicated] devices like their music player, their laptop computer and their cell phone. Thirdly, people want to occupy their minds with fantasies while they travel."
"Now we want to implement these ideas in the London Underground, in a project called Undersound that we are working on with the University of Irvine and a European Union-funded wireless network project called Bionets," said Brewer.
The Undersound project will allow passengers to upload a song while near ticketing booths and to download a song while waiting on the train platform. An uploaded song can only be downloaded once on any given day, which might prompt casual conversations between strangers as listeners fantasize about who uploaded that specific song. The song's journeys and lifetimes can also be the subject of people's fantasies, since where it was uploaded and where it has traveled through the underground will be displayed alongside the song on the user's player.
People and Practices has also sponsored similar studies observing people on bikes, on beaches and at other venues worldwide. The group has concluded that no one in any culture merely waits; instead they fill their time with either work-related or leisure-related activities.
"One thing we have discovered so far," said senior researcher Ken Anderson, "is that being busy conveys prestige in the U.S., but conveys the opposite in leisure cultures like in Brazil."
The researchers are currently developing a theory based on people's perception of time on a global scale that emphasizes how people today are communicating with others.
"We are currently formulating the idea of personal time zones," said Anderson. "Before the telephone, there were no time zones, but with the spread of global communications, people are now communicating with others in virtually all times zones simultaneously. We want to find ways that technology can resolve these conflicts with our concept of personal time zones, then develop a portfolio of objects that can assist people."
Another ongoing focus area includes personal digital money. Here researchers are finding that as money becomes virtual, people are gravitating toward more-tangible means of measuring wealth.
This summer, the researchers will take a look at virtual worlds--a concept that was fully fleshed in the science fiction of William Gibson and which is currently being resurrected on the Web site Second Life (secondlife.com/). The group will collaborate with University of California, Irvine, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, author of the forthcoming book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.