What Makes Her Click

Intel's Genevieve Bell talks about why we adopt some gadgets and spurn others—and why tech companies underestimate female users.

AM: You’ve told me that in your Intel lab, you focus on what people love. So: What do people really love about new technology?

GB: I have so many stories of people reflecting on the ways technology gave their parents voices they didn’t know they had. I remember years ago, people—mostly 20-, 30-, and even 40‑somethings—reflecting on the fact that when e-mail and text-messaging came along, they suddenly heard their father in a way he’d never been before. It gave a generation of taciturn men a way to have affective relationships across their families. I still hear that about the way people are connecting on Facebook.

AM: When it comes to user experience, are there things that people love that you didn’t expect them to love?

GB: Some of it is about tactility. Think about the number of times you have stood in the lobby of a building and watched a little kid run up to an elevator button and then just push it a hundred times.

AM: So what’s next in gadget interface design? Will tactility return to our lives? The iPad’s version of touch is so flat, and there’s no feedback.

GB: I think we will end up seeing this incredible layering of things: standard touch for some things, haptics for others, voice for yet another thing. The best analogy I can think of is cars. When you sit in a car, look at all the different ways you have to engage with the machine. The wheel, for steering. Foot pedals, for gear changes, acceleration, and braking. It turns out having a knob for windshield wipers doesn’t really make sense.

AM: We always talk about technology adoption. What about non-adoption? Can you think of telling areas in which people haven’t wanted a new gadget?

GB: We have the example of the Honeywell Kitchen Computer from the 1960s, in a Neiman Marcus catalogue. I think it cost about $10,000—and $600 to teach your wife how to program it. The tagline was “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.” It’s so perverse. Of course, none of them sold. Every ubiquitous-computing conference I’d been to, everyone was doing something in kitchen computing, and none of it ever seemed to pay any attention to how people actually inhabited kitchens.

AM: Has anything changed since then?

GB: This last year, we were looking at really early adopters of the iPad, and we found a woman in her house, and what had she done? She had stuck the iPad in a ziplock bag and stuck it on the kitchen counter and was using it to cook. And I remember thinking, Ah, it wasn’t about “kitchen computing,” it was about computing you could make come to the kitchen. It was about finding an object that fitted into all the things that a kitchen already is, rather than trying to reconfigure the kitchen around the Honeywell Kitchen Computer.

Alexis Madrigal is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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