Wendy March sits on the floor in the living-room of a house in Brighton surrounded by a group of excited children, all under the age of 10. Some are playing with Pokémon cards, some are drawing pictures, and others are eager to tell her about everything from their favourite games to what they watched on television last night.
Ms March listens to what they have to say, occasionally joining in with their activities, making notes or prompting them to explain something. But she is not an au pair or a nursery school teacher – she is an ethnographer.
The word may conjure up images of academics studying obscure tribal rituals in Papua New Guinea, but Ms March actually works for Intel, the microchip giant best known for its annoyingly catchy four-note jingle.
The world's largest chipmaker is looking to develop the next generation of consumer products. As she plays with the children, Ms March is also filling a key role in helping Intel to decide where it might spend the next $100m of its research and development budget.
This month, Intel's team are in the UK, talking to schoolchildren about what they use computers for – and asking them how they might go about designing the next generation of video-game consoles.
Ms March is just one member of a team of ethnographers, sociologists and anthropologists based at a laboratory in Oregon. Their job is to scour the globe – anywhere from the US to Europe, China and India – looking at behavioural patterns in different cultures and how this affects the use of technology.
"A lot of US companies use the marketing acronym ROW [which stands for Rest of the World] but the world doesn't stop at the shores of the Atlantic. We've looked at Sweden, Italy, France, Germany and the UK," says Ms March, who is herself British.
The ongoing study comes under the auspices of the chip company's People and Practices Group, whose remit is to carry out "grass-roots" research. Team members go into homes and workplaces to find out how technology is used in real life. The information gained helps Intel's boffins to develop new products that better address customers' everyday needs.
"Initially it was hard to persuade the engineers at Intel to listen – it was a radically new thing for them," Ms March continues, "but over the past five years that's definitely changed."
It may sound like something out of Big Brother, but the US chip giant wants to know everything from where in the house your children play to how you do the washing-up.
Intel isn't alone in adopting grass-roots strategies to learn more about consumers. Other technology-driven companies such as Philips and Hewlett-Packard are studying consumers at close hand, taking the "human" approach rather than looking at products in isolation. And other large corporates are using even more unconventional methods to map changing trends. An increasing number of retailers and consumer-product companies – including the likes of Levi Strauss, PepsiCo, Puma and Reebok – are employing so-called "coolhunters" to tell them what's hot and what's not.
Much like Intel's teams of sociologists and ethnographers, these researchers are charged with staying in touch with consumers, conducting up-to-the-minute vox-pop surveys with people on the ground. Tactics can include everything from monitoring fashions in the hippest clubs and magazines to taking photos of trendsetters and conducting video interviews on the high street.
The value of these kinds of approaches, according to Ms March, is that they involve consumers at an early stage of product development, rather than simply urging them to buy something that has already been manufactured. After all, if this conventional way of working goes wrong, millions of pounds can easily be wasted. "The whole point is to try to drive new product design," explains Ms March. "It's not a case of, 'We can make it and make people like it', but rather, 'What would people be interested in?'"
A case in point is the scheduling device developed by Intel to allow busy parents to keep track of their children's extra-curricular activities. It was originally designed for the US market, but Intel had also seen potentially lucrative sales in China. However, social research has indicated that, since most Chinese families now have only one child, due to population controls, there is much less "juggling" of children's social lives in China than in the US, and, consequently, less demand for such a product. Intel has adapted its strategy accordingly.
Observing how people behave also provides an impetus to manufacturers to develop products for previously unidentified market needs. This kind of information might not have been uncovered in a simple questionnaire.
Intel's research has already revealed that people enjoy collecting and displaying things. "It's very important to them," says Ms March. "[For example, they] really like to display their CD collections – it shows that they're 'cool' or a connoisseur."
A simple observation of this type can have important implications – in this case for developing digital music devices using MP3 files. Intel discovered that, while consumers were prepared to use MP3, they missed having the physical "brand" of music to display. This led Intel to research ways in which music could be presented and to develop an "album tree" that allows consumers to "tag" their files and display them.
After looking at how people relate stories and share information with each other, Intel has also been developing a flat table-top computer that can be used to allow people to work, play games or even look through a digital photo album together.
Ms March believes that one of the most significant aspects of her research is the insight it gives into people's dissatisfaction with existing products – and the impetus this provides for improving product design. "It's really interesting when people talk about their frustration," she says. "We can use that experience as a springboard for ideas."
So if someone from Intel knocks at your door, remember: by inviting them into your living room, you could be helping to shape the next generation of new technology. It all gives a whole new meaning to the slogan "I've got Intel inside".