• Carolina MIlanesi

The Women Of Athena – Intel's Project Driving Computing Innovation

You might be familiar with Project Athena, an Intel innovation program designed to drive a better laptop user experience to fit the demands of the world we live in. First announced at CES in 2019, Project Athena was centered around a set of specifications aimed at driving a better laptop experience around specific areas such as performance, responsiveness, battery life, connectivity and form factor.  These specifications are meant to provide the technical foundation that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) would then use to build a new portfolio of products aimed at the needs of a specific category of users. To get to those users' needs, Intel worked with a team of women in the experience definition team for Project Athena, who drew insights from research on how people use their devices. 

I like to call them the "Women of Athena." They are Melissa Gregg, Chief Technologist, User Experience and Sustainability for Client Computing, Wendy March, Principal Engineer and UX Lead for Project Athena and Sudha Ganesh, Senior Director, Architecture Requirements, Client Computing Group. Their research-based approach to platform design is something that for someone like me who has spent the past twenty years in research is extremely fascinating and I wanted to find out more about the approach they are taking. 


I started my conversation with Melissa Gregg, the self-confessed "recovering academic." Her background as a professor had her focused on how mobile technology was changing the way we work.


A study she did during the last recession is particularly relevant today as she studied the pressure to stay productive when working in an environment that seems more and more unclear, and unsafe. One finding in particular that she shared with me really highlighted the different approach Gregg and the team are taking when studying users in order to develop a structured path of computing innovation. She told me that it was evident in her study that people were feeling a need to connect their devices to a professional identity. The device was empowering them to be who they needed to be professionally. As I was listening to Gregg speak, I started to get concerned she was taking me down a road that could only lead to one destination: personas! If you have been doing research or even some target marketing, you are familiar, I am sure, with personas. These are fictional characters created based on research to represent the different user types of a product or a service, in this case, a cutting-edge laptop. Creating personas can help you recognize that different people have different needs and expect different things. But personas can at times also be too detached from reality, which is why I ampersonally, not a fan and I was not shy in sharing my feelings with Gregg and March.  March assured me, however, that what they were trying to achieve with their ethnographic research was different from the kind of broad categories we had seen in the past, such as gamers, consumers, or business users. What they wanted to get to was to identify a new kind of user who has his or her professional identity wrapped up in the way that they use technology.


What You Do Matters Most


Today more than ever, as we try to work from home while we learn and teach at home, cook, clean and try and relax in the mid of sheltering in place orders, we know our worlds are colliding and we need tools that allow us to at least manage if not thrive. March goes on to explain how those artificial distinctions we used to have like work and play no longer hold.  A lot of people have been finding it necessary to bring both personal and professional pursuits together and to do so even on that one device that they turn to every day. Project Athena started out as being the best Intel has to offer from a platform perspective, which means that March and the team wanted to focus on users who are ambitious, have high expectations for themselves and the tools they use.  


These might be university students who are encountering the world mainly through cloud services through shared documents that they always have to have open with their fellow students. As a consequence of this new normal these students are spending a lot of their time online being watched by others while they work. Or they could be people making new income streams around a job that pays the bills. These people have in common the need to learn how to use tools on the go without an IT department and juggle these multiple identities. March, who uses her experience in user experience design to translate the research for engineers, explains that the focus, however, is not who these people are, what their job title says their profession is, but rather what these people spend their time doing. The focus is on the frameworks these people operate in. To really make this concept hit home, they talked about my profession: the industry analyst. My profession is to provide advice to tech companies. What I do is to write, present, switch through at least three video services a day for meetings, budget, invoice, influence through social media and more. Knowing my profession would never help the Women of Athena design the best computer platform for me but putting together "a day in the life" might. 


Executing On The Vision

How do we get to those requirements that best fit my needs and the needs of those that share similar experiences? This is the responsibility of Sudha Ganesh, who is pioneering initiatives at Intel to shift the engineering culture and mindset from silicon centric engineering targets to experiential metrics. With competitive assessments expertise, she identified the need for Intel to shift focus more on defining, architecting and engineering the products based on how people actually use them.


The partnership with Gregg and March paved a way to bring her vision to reality with structured framework to bridge the world of subjective UX to objective engineering targets in the company and drive roadmap of engineering innovations to meet the key user expectations. The ultimate goal is to improve the experience and to do that, Ganesh must create engineering metrics that match user-centric goals. Project Athena does that with its “key experience indicators,” considered as additive to industry-standard benchmarks. This means that the architects and engineers who are developing and tuning the products are working to deliver to those key experiences first.

I must admit that while I have known for many years that Intel had a strong research team, I have often seen technology innovation drive products whether or not that innovation was needed, understood, or appreciated by the final users. The approach that Intel is taking with Project Athena is really starting from the needs and the pain points of the users and marrying those to technology to drive meaningful innovation. 

Athena was the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, crafts and strength, I am not sure yet if every product that will come to market under Project Athena will embody all of these qualities, but the Women of Athena are doing a pretty good job in doing so. 

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