Making the PC More Pleasure than Pain by Listening to the People Who Use Them

Intel Innovator: Melissa Gregg, principal engineer and chief social scientist in the Client Computing Group

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Intel principal engineer Melissa Gregg is chief social scientist in the company’s Client Computing Group. Gregg’s work is focused on enabling powerful PC platforms to help people focus, create and connect. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)
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How she’d describe her job to a 10-year-old: “My job is to be the voice of the user to the engineers that build new PCs.”

A life’s work understanding work: Prior to Intel, Gregg spent a decade as an academic in Australia. Her research involved “studying knowledge workers and how technology was affecting their lives.” After an encounter with anthropologist and Intel Senior Fellow Genevieve Bell, she thought, “What better place to come and understand that more than right where [technology’s] built?”

More: Read about all Intel Innovators

Unpacking today’s device dilemma: Gregg has written a pair of books on the topic of work and technology, including “Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy,” published in November. It examines the history of management science as it relates to personal productivity, the rise of productivity self-help, and how today, as she wrote, “Our ability to organize ourselves and our work is a chronic source of professional anxiety.” Our devices don’t always help. “Computing devices are both a pleasure and a pain for people,” Gregg says.

The safer, more productive PC: The PC, however, is viewed differently compared to other devices, explains Gregg — particularly by digital natives. “They have fairly explicit ideas of the PC being where you grow up to be a professional and start doing the things that really define you.” Her job “is to make sure that we’re building something that people want to buy that’s responsive to their real day-to-day experiences with technology,” she explains. “We want it to be the safest place people spend their time.”

Listening to build better user experiences: Gregg and her fellow social scientists work at the intersection of market research, long-term planning and engineering. It starts with field work — spending time with PC users and uncovering both their pain points and their unmet needs. From there, Gregg explains, “you want to spur innovation in two directions”: in form factors, “to improve a person’s experience or their ergonomic problem,” and in usages, or “common practices people are doing now that could be assisted by the next wave of technology.” Where that’s leading, Gregg says, is to a set of design choices and requirements aimed at helping people focus, create and connect in more meaningful ways.

A cognitive assistant, coming soon? Maybe paradoxically, Gregg sees great potential in artificial intelligence on the PC to meet that “assisted by” goal. “People have always wanted to rely on or trust in a system to help them get their work done,” she says. “The idea of cognition, based on learning who you are and what your preferences are, has a lot of potential applications. I think it will be really exciting, how we will learn to work with our devices in new ways, and how they will learn from us.”

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