When Alex Zafiroglu was growing up in Delaware, she thought she wanted to be an archaeologist.
“I realized A.) I’m not so good at digging and B.) living people are much more interesting than dead ones,” she said.
Now, Zafiroglu gets paid to hang out in strangers’ bathrooms while they watch television on their tablets.
“They’re like, ‘This is the only place I can get away from the rest of my family. This is where I watch television,'” said Zafiroglu, a user experience architect at Intel Corporation. “Basically, my job is to work with people to understand how they live, what they value, what they’re daily lives are like.”
Zafiroglu, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware, is currently the lead researcher for smart-home experiences, meaning she does the research and creates strategies of usages around what domestic life — “home spaces” — will be like in three to five years with new Internet-of-Things technologies.
In a way, Zafiroglu’s job is to better understand the human condition in relation to the technology we must subsequently live with.
“Increasingly, companies have come to realize that if you start from an experience perspective and not just a straightforward technology perspective, you have much better results in the uptick of your products,” she said. “I think that’s across many industries.”
After getting her master’s and doctorate at Brown University in 2004, Zafiroglu went straight to Intel in Oregon, where she’s still living. She said for an anthropologist, working at a large corporation full of technologists is something of a playground.
“The questions they bring to the table are completely different,” she said. Take the engineer she most frequently collaborates with, for example.
“[She] explains it this way: engineers like to solve problems — give me a problem and I’ll solve it. Anthropologists like to create new and different problems that engineers haven’t thought about before,” said Zafiroglu. “[Engineers] want to stay in a solutions space and I want to stay in the problems space.”
Zafiroglu will coming back to Delaware to speak at this year’s Inspiring Women in STEM conference on Oc. 14. What can attendees look forward to in her presentation?
“I’ll be talking about the development in technologies around the Internet of Things and how our daily activities change,” said Zafiroglu. “I’ll be looking at the smart home, where I’ve been doing a majority of my work lately, intelligent transportation systems, where I’ve done quite a bit of work in the past, and definitely something around workplace practices and industry.”