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.

Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is an Atlantic senior editor.

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