Episode 125: Where Customer Experience Meets Sustainability with Intel (Transcript)

October 11, 2021

30 Min Read

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:28] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Melissa Gregg, Chief Technologist, User Experience & Sustainability from Intel. Welcome, Melissa, and thanks for being on the show today. 

[00:00:39] Melissa Gregg: The great pleasure is being with you, Liz.

[00:00:42] Liz: We normally start at the beginning on this podcast. Could you please share a bit about your background and your journey to Intel? 

[00:00:48] Melissa: Oh, boy. That is quite a journey. It starts on a little island at the bottom of the world. I grew up in Tasmania, Australia. I was on a farm looking out to Antarctica. This says two years of my life, and then I decided, "Well, what do you do when you grow up in an island to amuse yourself? You read books".

My long story short is, I read a lot of books. I ended up going to university. I ended up becoming an academic for the first part of my career. That took me all over the world, and I managed to get some really great research training as a postdoc and as a faculty member in Australia, then I was recruited to Intel by another Australian, an anthropologist named Genevieve Bell. She had an amazing lab at that time of social scientists and designers who were doing really cutting edge research, and all about the future technology, which is what I have been studying as an academic.

It was a seductive proposal to come to America, come to Silicon Valley, and learn how technology is actually made, because that's really what I wanted to do. I wanted to take what I was learning from my research and really influence how technology was being designed. That's what I got to do when I joined Intel. Eventually, I started off doing some research collaborations with academics. Now I'm working full-time in the business. Working alongside the engineers, and people who design the next product.

[00:02:37] Liz: Amazing that you made that jump from academia to corporate. How's it going for you?

[00:02:42] Melissa: It's been a while now. It's definitely been a pretty big transition. Some days, I wonder whether I've really fully succeeded, but I do maintain a lot of collaborations with my academic colleagues too, because I think that nerd instinct is pretty strong. Still do read a lot of books and I still accidentally write them, too. It's something that has been a real passion that's hard to let go.

[00:03:13] Liz: I love hearing about the work you're doing, and the customer experience work, in particular, is so interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that, and ultimately, how you're using those critical customer insights to be more sustainable at Intel?

[00:03:29] Melissa: Yes. The thing that we do in the PC business, that Intel user experience research starts with ordinary users of that technology. We go into people's homes, into their workplaces, where they use technology, and we take from those interviews, and observations, recommendations, and insights based on what they need, what they tell us they enjoy, or what they want more.

When I was doing research for one of our big laptop innovation programs recently, with Project Athena. One of the observations that was very prominent in the interviews we did, particularly in Europe but also in some parts of the US, was people were really starting to express an interest in more sustainable design for technology, and we're feeling a little consent that they couldn't get access to more sustainable designs on the market at that time.

We've seen over the years, people becoming more aware of their own consumption habits and the effect of those consumption habits, and people having seeing examples of more sustainably designed products. [unintelligible 00:04:49]is one example in the hardware technology area where people are starting to see exclusive branding. The companies are showing the full production behind that device as part of what they stand for.

We've seen a trend in some of our research over the last couple of years where we're seeing a younger generation wanting that from the PC business as well. That's the direction that our work's taking on the PC business at Intel.

[00:05:25] Liz: That makes sense. I feel like the younger generations are insisting that brands make changes, and ultimately that will help all of us, especially the planet. Now, how much of that work was centered around reuse? I know you've tweeted about it, and it's a big question at the end of life, that reusing pieces and products will help obviously, to divert out of the landfill. How much are you doing around that?

[00:05:54] Melissa: This is my new area of focus because I'm so strongly of the belief that we have to compliment the traditional methods of market and user research that we've inherited of these-- with a more active focus on designing for reuse. 

What I mean by that is, up until now, the way that we've done a lot of that product development process has been focusing on the most advanced sophisticated user, who already knows what they want from their PC, and has very specific expectations, but there's a whole lot of people in the world who don't have a PC, who don't have the latest PC, who can't afford it, and are currently on the shift.

We've really seen that playing out during the COVID pandemic where even in local community settings of our own colleagues, people being quite surprised to see how difficult it's been for kids to connect to school, for multiple workers in a household to get connected at the same time. The idea of reusing your experience is in bringing a design mindset at the beginning of how we think about products, so that we're always assuming that this device will be reused after the first instance.

I think we've had a bit of a linear model of making the product, selling it, and disposing it, but in a lot of the language that your listeners will be familiar with around circularity, or circular economy principles. Instead, we need to think about how can we keep this device, this really crucial set of resources that's been put together in this thing? How can we keep that circulating? How can we keep those dimensions of how a system is used by user in the circulation for as long as possible?

Then at the end of life-- or how many lives it may have? We may need to start using metaphors of cats or something, having nine lives that-- nine could be a scratch at this point. I think we have to really try and maximize the full utility and capacity of the device, and realize that it's a collective computing opportunity as opposed to the individual users experience.

That's essentially the difference in mindset that I think reuser experience as a method can help us see. Is that it's not my personal experience that this device is destined to fulfill forever. It's actually, I get the first opportunity and I want this to be something that others benefit from, too. That's what reuser experience design can give us.

[00:08:56] Liz: I love that idea, and I really hope we get there because that's critical to do at the beginning stage of life. Like you alluded to a lot of our listeners, they're focused on circularity, and because they've dealt with the end of life of these products for decades and decades, and now to hear someone like you at Intel, who's actually thinking about this from the design stage is a beautiful thing.

[00:09:21] Melissa: The thing that's really exciting from my point of view is when you sit alongside the engineering, and the architect, who are the ones that really get to cook up the recipe, so to speak, for how the PCs in a brain and functions get programmed in the first place. That's really an important place to have the conversation. Because, it's really our customers, and our partners who make the devices themselves.

The case, the shell, the screen, and all those sorts of things, but to bring it to life at the PC platform level, or even all the way down to the Silicon, you have to be having those conversations all along the way, and that's the thing as a social scientist, I've had to take some time to learn who has more role at what stage in product design. That's something I'm really enjoying, learning and sharing with others.

[00:10:24] Liz: I bet. That's great, and the importance of bringing those stakeholders together, and really talking about what's in it for all of you at each phase. I love that you're doing that. In Intel, you guys recently outlined your 2030 RISE Strategy for your corporate responsibility goals for the next decade. Can you talk about that and your role in that?

[00:10:47] Melissa: Yes. I have the privilege of being on the Tech Impact Steering Committee for RISE, and RISE stands for Responsible, Inclusive, and Sustainable design Enabled by our employees. The acronym itself is optimistic, hopeful, and this idea of RISE because we want to inspire our colleagues as much as our industry on aiming for today's goals. The thing that I guess is really exciting from my point of view is the way in which RISE brings together all of these different aspects where Intel can play a role in the industry.

When you're working at the level of Silicon, as I said we have engineers deciding the features that go into the technology. You do have this privilege and responsibility to enable the right kinds of features, and when it comes to the way that we build products, I was thinking about this in your previous questions too, that it doesn't take much to encourage an engineer to try and make something more efficient.

Energy efficiency has always been a really big pot of how people understand sustainability in tech and in hardware in particular, but what RISE is also encouraging us to do are a range of initiatives that are about bringing the whole circularity to the production of the chips in the first place. How we work with our fab leaders to manage our fabs responsibly? How we bring safety to employees who are working in those fabs?

There are other parts beyond where I work in the PC business that are also about enabling the autonomous vehicle revolution and using technology in a way that's going to encourage a safer road inviting. There are energy and sustainability benefits to that too. If you believe all that hype, that we're going to have a lot more intelligence in the transportation sector.

The thing that's so great about RISE is that it's capturing all of the ways that Intel contributes to the industry, because it has a lot of businesses beyond just the traditional PC now. I think that's the exciting part too, of working in a big company is that you have the chance to influence the direction of a company that has global implications. It has a lot of people who use the products across the world, but also employs a lot of people in the production and in the supply chain side of things.

It's a big program for the big ambition and by 2030, it's also how corporate responsibility goals tend to work on these decade-long targets. It gives you a chance to really build some fundamental infrastructure for bringing out what it is that we think are the priorities that the industry is asking for. 

[00:14:02] Liz: Absolutely. That's so important. Like you mentioned a little bit there, I like how Intel goes beyond their own sustainability goals. I read that you actually have rules in place for your suppliers to do the same. Did the pandemic affect your supply chains at all for any of the work that you're doing?

[00:14:24] Melissa: From my point of view, sitting in the PC business, the pandemic is one of the things that really helped accelerate what I was already interested in exploring around this idea of reuse, and particularly how people are dealing with the prolonged, or ongoing expectation they have for their devices when they can't necessarily buy a new one.

There has been a very well-publicized Silicon shortage, which has many factors involved, 

but part of it is simply the fact that yes, you have factories unable to operate when it's not safe for employees to be there, and I think what's interesting too is it prompts new kinds of awareness amongst ordinary users like us, but there is a kind of an effect of supply that we're not always expecting when we were trying to place that order for when we want something to arrive.  

What I've been interested in when it comes to that question of how I'm going to get the new PCs, what it is that people are doing to work around it, and this use of secondhand PCs is something we've done a study on just that's what I was working on this morning, the presentation for that research study and seeing how people are starting to use different kinds of platforms, using lots of online platforms to redistribute and resell PCs, and get access to PCs when they're trying to educate their kids at home and that sort of thing. I think there's just been a lot of awareness rising among people around what that knock-on effect of the supply chain can mean, and how we all have to think about why has to be resilient to make use of the compute resources that are already out in the world.

[00:16:35] Liz: Absolutely, and I think you're right, that the awareness has just gone up astronomically. One of the silver linings of the pandemic, I would say.

[00:16:45] Melissa: I don't know how many [unintelligible 00:16:46], but yes.

[00:16:45] Liz: Exactly [laughs]. We had a Bloomberg columnist named Adam Minter on the show, and he has spoken at some of our events. He was Asia-based before the pandemic, and he always talked about how PC is the value over there of each little piece in each little metal within was so much higher than the way that we've viewed it here. Do you see that at Intel? Do you see it eventually coming back this way? Or is it just a different way of thinking based on culture and the people in need?

[00:17:27] Melissa: I'm a huge fan of Adam Minter story, [inaudible 00:17:30] his books on the second-hand trade in all kinds of goods and materials has been a big influence on my thinking when it comes to reuse, and yes, the way that he has done such pioneering journalism around the markets around circularity that are already in existence. I think one of the really strong points he makes consistently is I think the European and American policy lab guide has started to talk about circularity quite recently when in practice it's been a reality in many countries and economies for a very long time, because there is a lot of innovation that comes out of constraint, and there's a lot of opportunism that comes depending on your access to resources in the first place.

What I love about his work is it's international. It's its national perspective and its ability to point out some of the biases in even how we talk about economy. When we were doing research informed by his work this past year, it was looking at definitions of waste. Because when you're starting to talk about e-waste regulation -and this could be like way too detailed and nerdy for you- but it's really interesting how it's the most wealthy countries who get to determine the concept of waste in the first place.

For a lot of the ways that e-waste is regulated internationally across borders, it seems to be based on whether somebody in a wealthy country has decided, "I just don't want this anymore".

Therefore it is waste. Therefore, it has this category, this binding category that then means that certain conventions apply. Obviously, the point I was making about reuse it's not going to be waste for somebody else who may be able to use that device if there's nothing actually wrong with it. It's just that you want it, and you don't want it. It's those sorts of cultural sensitivities that I think generalists, like I mentioned early, are thrilling and uncovering. It's also another reason why ethnography and anthropology is really important to thinking about sustainability in our own biases.

[00:20:10] Liz: Absolutely. I think you're doing it at the right time because I think you'll see the pre-pandemic shift during the pandemic and then where we are after. Especially with all of these aggressive sustainability goals that many companies beyond even Intel and Tech have for themselves. You have a great bird's eye view. I can't wait to hear more as you ride this out, and watch, and research.

[00:20:38] Melissa: The thing you have to get a lot of people past in a business mindset, I think, is whether this idea of reuse is jeopardizing the original market. A lot of people talk about these daily horrible works like cannibalizing. We're going to cannibalize the primary market for PCs before we have the secondary PC market. It's like, "No." They're different people who are serviced by those different markets and it's growing aware of the capabilities of what a PC provides for people who haven't ever had one.

I think, going back to that idea, the Linear model, I think we've had this fairly linear idea of adoption that people only ever buy the best. I think for the idea that I'm trying to bring across, at least, it's starting to go a vocabulary where we recognize that just because I'm finished with something it doesn't mean it can't be useful for others. I think we have to try and find a way to catalyze that instinct in people to do good and to also pass on things that they've benefited from.

They're definitely aware that the research we've done suggests people do want to know that the device they had has gone to a good home or has gone to another useful recipient or beneficiary of this device, that they've cared a lot about themselves, but they've also paid for. There's a return on investment calculation too. Whether you're looking at it from economic standpoint or you're looking at it from a feel-good standpoint, I still think you get to the same conclusion. Like, "Let's design these things for more than one user".

[00:22:42] Liz:  Definitely. It's interesting you say that. You may already be doing it, but is consumer education part of what you're trying to do here? Because communication is so key and we see it on the recycling end. You could have communities where an education program is rolled out and the success rate will go up 25% quickly. Just because they were educated about it and they knew what bin it was going to. I just can't help but to think if Intel were to do that, you would have a great result.

[00:23:16] Melissa: I'm not [unintelligible 00:23:18] on the front. I've certainly read enough research on recycling now to realize that the amount that we invest in that relative to what we should be doing to stop bringing so much stuff into a house in the first place it's a little bit of a rearranging directive on the titanic idea. That's one of the sobering things about studying sustainability long-term, it's the further up you go in the production and manufacturing process that, on the whole that scale the more effect you can have.

But that's not to say that we shouldn't be doing everything we can to make people aware of their role. If we do get the chance to show people that keeping a PC in their closet for a couple of years actually means that those resources that went into that PC are trapped and will not be able to be used again. Because there's all kinds of things that happened in those two years, like you forget the password to get it to turn on in the first place.

There is something really important about making people see their personal connections to the extraction that goes into making the metals that go into that device, and that they are, essentially, now trapped resources in the form of your PC. I know there's a lot of really important e-waste activism happening on this front, whether it's through different ways of appealing to people's senses [unintelligible 00:25:04] about donating devices, or yes, getting people to see how it can help transform the life of somebody who's never had one.

Yes, there's lots of different emotional as well as practical things that we should be doing to try and make people feel motivated to bring those devices back. That's a big factor in what a lot of the OEMs, Original Equipment Manufacturers as they're called, the PC providers, are trying to do, is bring those devices home.

[00:25:39] Liz: Yes, and some are doing a great job. I'm sure you're including a lot of that in your presentation that you said you're working on too, to see who's doing it and who's doing it well.

[00:25:52] Melissa: Yes, it's actually amazing how many services are actually already in place. But as you say, whether people are aware of it is one issue. Then secondly, when people have time to actually go through that process? It's something that we haven't really spent a lot of time on. Again, it comes back to designing an experience, like, what is the experience of saying goodbye to a device? I really dwell on anthropology when I'm thinking about this as a problem because it's a ritual opportunity when you focus a lot on getting the new thing, but we haven't really created a ritual about setting something free or letting go of your device.

I think if we use some of those really powerful ways that we know humans interact with time and meaning, and how things have played a role for a certain period of their life, we could have similar success. But it's one of those things when you work in tech and you're a humanities trained person. You realize how many ways those human touchpoints are not part of the conversation. It's more reflective of the lack of diversity in this industry that we're also trying to address.

[00:27:22] Liz: That makes sense. We talked a little bit about regulation. Do you think there should be more regulation around reuse and recycling of PCs? Or do you think we need more standards in place? At least here [inaudible 00:27:33].

[00:27:35] Melissa: How long have you got for this topic? [laughs] I have a lot of thoughts in this area. It's partly because I've been working with some amazing research scholars who do specialize in this. What they've made me learn, I'm thinking of people like Josh Lepawsky in Newfoundland, who's got the book Reassembling Rubbish. There are others who've gone into this in even more detail, but he talks about global e-waste regulatory landscape and has helped us learn about that, too.

What's fascinating the more you look at it is just how he uses the word incommensurable. How even the words, the terms, and the definitions of waste, as we were talking about earlier, don't all map onto each other the same way depending on the jurisdiction. Also, when you're talking about somewhere like the United States, it's not easy to have any federal influence. It's all state-based regulation. It's very different where I grew up in Australia, where everything is federally required, as opposed to state-based.

You really have to come to terms with the context and the nuance of the setting for things to become a regulatory question or not. What concerns me, I suppose, in what I'm observing all the time in the industry is regulation tends to be what creates immediate change in how things are done, how business is done. But we haven't been in a very strong context for regulation in the United States, at least in the years I've been here. I think it requires a lot more passionate scrutiny because we do need more help in encouraging the right process for waste and disposal.

I think there's progress being made and there are a lot of motivated people in agencies that are trying to get us into the right path. But I think you need a number of things. You need regulations. You need standards. [unintelligible 00:30:04], they don't seem to be working particularly well when it comes to waste. I've learned in the business world that another way of looking at these problems is it's an innovation opportunity. I see a lot of activity now happening with startups and sustainably-minded entrepreneurs. They're just going to stop doing business around this because they care about it. They're not going to wait for the regulations in the way that more dinosaur companies might be waiting for the heavy hand of God to respond. I think we can count on this new generation who is starting companies to innovate around these limitations and hopefully translate to better standards too.

[00:30:53] Liz: I think you're right about that too. Switching gears a little bit, I saw that you recently published a book called Media and Management. Can you talk a little bit about that? That really intrigued me.

[00:31:05] Melissa: Sure, yes. I did mention that I still maintain my academic connections. This was a book that came out of a COVID lockdown situation. I had some colleagues who have a lot in common in terms of their research interests. It is actually related to the supply chain and the history of producing technology and manufacturing. This book is a group of scholars who are all interested in looking at the legacy of management techniques in the factory, particularly in Japan.

The rise of Toyota's boom and just-in-time production, and how that started to influence the way that socially design happened much later in the '80s and '90s, and moving into the more recent platform economy that we're seeing with app-based delivery, and all of these different things that were happening during COVID brought these topics together. Manufacturing, supply chain, software, and [unintelligible 00:32:16] delivery app. The book is exploring the history that got us to this point.

The language just-in-time delivery is something that, yes, as academics, it's very fun to interrogate because a lot of our ideas of delivery and on-demand services we can trace back to some of those changes in manufacturing that came out of Asia. That's another nerdy pursuit that I continue to focus on because my research has always had an interest in management theory. That's something that, again, I think has been helpful to navigate a large company.

[00:32:58] Liz: I bet. I love all that. You call them nerdy pursuits, but I think they're fascinating. I love it.

[00:33:07] Melissa: Yes, it's one way of passing the time in lock-down. Not everybody decides to write a book across three continents, but there you go.

[00:33:16] Liz: [laughs] Exactly. Do you have any advice? Customer experience is all the rage now, regardless of type of company or industry, and you dig really deeply into this. Do you have any advice for managers and people who were doing this on a more peripheral level? How they can take their customer's experience and translate that into either a better experience or more sustainability? Any advice you have really would be wonderful.

[00:33:50] Melissa: Well, I think my advice, coming into business and corporate life from such a strange path, I think a lot of what I do at Intel is point out the interest of those who aren't in the building or in the teams or Zoom calls. I think a lot of industries tend to suffer from a desire for things to stay the way they are if things are going well, or for things to improve if they're not going so well. How you get closer to your customer or your user really has to involve approaching them where they are, as opposed to where you wish they were or where you want them to be.

The methods that we use in ethnography, in-market insights, and research tend to be all designed to cut through the hype of target and projections. Really, just talk in detail, person to person, where the user of technology to see what's their day like, what motivates them, what are they trying to get done. Because, ultimately, your product or your service, needs to be trying to help them with the things that they've identified as their priorities, rather than them needing to recognize what it is that you're selling as a solution to that. How you get closer to your customer or your user really has to involve approaching them where they are, as opposed to where you wish they were or where you want them to be.

The methods that we use in ethnography, in market insights, and research tend to be all designed to cut through the hype of target and projections. Really, just talk in detail, person to person with the user of technology to see what's their day like, what motivates them, what are they trying to get done? Because, ultimately, your product or your service needs to be trying to help them with the things that they've identified as their priorities, rather than them may be to recognize what it is that you're selling as a solution to that.

I think it's really experienced-based design and even experienced-based marketing. [unintelligible 00:35:35] didn't have a long history at Intel, but when it's done well, it's really about allowing people to see that you're responding to what their ordinary expectations are each day. We don't know that. We can only do that in specific encounters that we haven't figured, ethnography is a really great tool for that.

[00:36:01] Liz: That's great advice and so true, regardless of industry. Right?

[00:36:06] Melissa: Yes, it's about popping the echo chamber effect in market research and projections. Really remembering who it is that's going to benefit and what it is you're trying to offer them.

[00:36:21] Liz: I love that. Your customers are lucky to have you and your team there to put them first always. That's huge.

[00:36:29] Melissa: I'm smiling. I'm blushing [laughs]. 

[00:36:31] Liz: [laughs] Tell me, what's next for you? What's next in Intel sustainability journey?

[00:36:38] Melissa: For me personally, one of the things I'm very excited about is our partnership with non-profits right now. The research I'm leading at the moment is working with one of the coolest non-profits in Portland here in Oregon, Free Geek. They do PC refurbishing and help bring more people into the competing world by giving away and donating refurbished PCs. Working with them brings me so much joy.

The thing that it really makes me realize is that you can not only help people within initiatives around sustainability, but you're helping the planet by keeping those resources moving further and further through [unintelligible 00:37:28]. I just love that. We've done that partnership with Free Geek out of a longstanding relationship of donation at corporate level for Intel. That's something that Intel does in a number of different locations. Arizona too is another place where we have a nonprofit presence.

That, to me, is really important because sustainability is about being mindful of where you are, where you're physically located in that environment. It can have the nicest policy at global level but if it's not also attached to where you are and the environment you share, it's not really going to be that authentic. That's the thing I'm focused on. I hope that that's one of the examples that continues to inspire it more because we still have a few years left until 2030.

[00:38:28] Liz: I bet. You know that will spread and we'll be an inspiration for others. I love that you guys are doing that.

[00:38:36] Melissa: Yes, that's my message for everyone from this conversation, donate your old PCs. Don't leave them hanging around.

[00:38:44] Liz: [laughs] Your timing is impeccable because my husband just got himself a new PC and we were trying to figure out where to take the other one. Whether it was e-waste day in our community or what, but we will certainly take care of that [laughs].

[00:39:02] Melissa: The other thing you could do, I know that International Repair Day next weekend. I think it's October 13th. Depending on the timing of your broadcast, you could take it along to our repair cafe and see who would like to use it as a way of training of it on making reuse a reality. That's another thing that I'm really excited about, too, is seeing how many people are becoming independent entrepreneurs of their device use. I think that's a really important thing that we've learned about COVID. You can never be too resilient in provisioning yourself [laughs].

[00:39:48] Liz: Amen. That is so true [laughs]. Is there anything else you want to share? I'm sure you have a busy day and I appreciate all your time today.

[00:39:57] Melissa: I think I'm good. I really enjoyed the conversation and I hope we covered what you wanted to. I'm looking forward to diving into more of your archives as well, so that I can be inspired by others.

[00:40:11] Liz: Thank you for your time today. It was really informative. Please, keep us updated as you continue your amazing work, what you discover along the way, and how you're tracking to sustainability goals. We would love to learn more as you go. Thank you. It was wonderful to meet you and stay well. I hope you get to go home soon. I hope to chat with you soon and thank you again.

[00:40:35] Melissa: Okay, thanks a lot. This was great.

[00:40:38] Liz: Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast. If you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun Nothing Wasted Podcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.


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