“Alexa, how useful are you?”

July 11, 2017

Read time 10 min

From Siri to Google Home, voice-controlled AIs are starting to enter our homes. We recently dipped our toes in those waters, and started experimenting with Amazon’s Alexa. But exactly how useful is it – and how could it be made better?

This spring, Reaktorians got a head start in playing with a new, exciting gadget: the Amazon Echo Dot (2nd generation). As a tech company, we want to continuously get experiences using the latest technologies. Although speech recognition technology itself is nothing new, Amazon Echo has made its way to the homes of regular consumers.

Voice-controlled services for the home are a fast-growing market: according to the 2017 Voice Report from VoiceLabs, Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers are projected to sell more than 24 million units combined through the end of 2017. But what do regular people – in this case, Reaktorians – make of these gadgets?

I was intrigued, so I went ahead and asked them in a survey on the Alexa user experience.

Here’s what I found out.

Localization is essential to making a voice interface useful

Although we have growing offices in New York, Tokyo and Amsterdam, the majority of our employees are still located in Helsinki. This created a lot of issues for our use of Alexa, as the service has officially only been launched in the US, UK and Germany. For people living in Finland, no voice-first services are supported, and Alexa doesn’t understand (let alone speak) Finnish.

Even installing the Alexa app onto my phone required some serious hacking configurations.

According to my survey, people want real services that understand their context. This includes taking speech-to-text notes, ordering pizza or groceries, and asking for public transport timetables in natural language – “When do I have to leave if I want to get to BasBas (a restaurant in downtown Helsinki) by 7 PM?”

At the moment, the features for users in Finland are very limited. As a colleague put it in the survey: as it stands, Alexa is just a glorified egg timer.

Lost in pronunciation

When Alexa doesn’t recognize what you’re trying to say, it’s easy to feel frustrated. Using non-English names and terms within an English sentence causes problems: many Alexa users from Reaktor would like to listen to a radio station called Bassoradio, but it is impossible to get Alexa to understand “Alexa, please play Bassoradio!”

Usually, she gets Radio Helsinki right (although sometimes instead of the station, you get Radiohead instead), but there’s no way of getting her to play Bassoradio. Not even if you try very hard to pronounce it the way an English speaker might.

Even with regular English names and terms, there are plenty of misinterpretations and sorry-I-didn’t-quite-get-thats. You don’t want to have to repeat yourself to a machine, and the benefits of using a voice UI are lost as soon as you do. And errors with voice UIs wear tempers down even faster than with traditional apps.

To quote from the survey: “the worst is the sound of ERROR – this broadcasts to everyone around you that you made a mistake of some kind.”

Interaction: yes, conversation: no

Typically, a conversation has nuances, intonation, emotions, gestures, agreements and shared goals. Alexa is still an ask-and-respond interface that gives you a feeling of commanding something instead of having a real discussion. Alexa lacks an essential skill: it has no sense of context, nor does it have a memory. When asking a follow-up question, it doesn’t remember what it said before.

In that sense Siri and Google are a bit more sophisticated. They know I am still on the same topic. This is the base of any natural-sounding conversation – you say something, and the other party adds to it. Also, repeating Alexa’s name every time you want to add something to a previous sentence gets annoying very quickly.

One of the biggest problems with using Alexa is that it is not intuitive to find new “skills” – skill being Amazon’s term for things that Alexa can do for you. You can not know the unknown. And even if you know what it can do, you need to know how to phrase it to get it right. Essentially, you need to learn how the machine works for you when it really should be the other way around. Alexa is still miles away from a human level of understanding language, and you have to learn how to command it.

Speaking to Alexa is like teaching a puppy: use short, simple commands, and prepare for plenty of name repeating. Try a longer sentence and you end up with a mess. Paul Pangaro, Ph.D. Chair and Associate Professor at the MFA Interaction Design College for Creative Studies, said it best: “Alexa, can you please acquire the skill of conversation?”

Integration with smart home devices is key – and it’s hard to find

Before the survey, my hypothesis was that people would most probably command Alexa to play music from Spotify. That seemed to be true. The most popular feature was playing music (81% of respondents did it), followed by asking about weather and setting the timer. However, the built-in speaker is not good enough to play music and hence, left people not using the feature.

With bluetooth speakers Alexa works like a dream, but all other options take much more effort. Sonos integration is coming later this year – before that, old-school wiring tech is bound to give you a headache. I found that users would appreciate the possibility of having Alexa speak through its own speaker, yet play music via an external audio source. And that’s just too complicated at the moment.

Also, without any integrated smart devices for the home, Alexa is pretty useless for users in Finland. Someone said they already had too many devices, so the rest of the family thanked no to Alexa.

Those who had done home integration with Alexa said that it had taken a lot of time and effort (not mentioning you by name, Logitech Harmony!) to get them work. Seamless tech, you are not just quite there yet. I haven’t lost my faith, though, and I am still going to design a smart home with Alexa. We’ll see how that goes…

Trust issues

The biggest concern with Alexa was privacy. Many said that they are not going to use it at all because of privacy concerns, they felt they can’t trust Amazon like they trust Apple.

True, Alexa is listening all the time. We don’t have any visibility into what Amazon does with all that data. We know that the commands are stored in the cloud, but do they also pick up on our habits? Which TV shows we are watching, what music we are playing, what we are cooking, and so on?

If Echo flashes the blue ring (signifying that it’s listening) without saying anything, it’s creepy. And it would be nice to know what it does when that happens.

Interestingly, those who speak Finnish at home felt more comfortable using Alexa than those who spoke English, as Alexa doesn’t yet understand Finnish. It seems that people felt their uncommon first language “protected” their security.

One clearly missing feature is that Alexa could easily unplug itself whenever needed and switch the power off completely by voice command (you can only do it if you are an IoT engineer).

Kidding around

What the survey indicated Alexa is good for is having fun. One of the most popular skills my colleagues used was asking Alexa to tell jokes (46.7% users tried that).

Another popular use case was entertaining children – I read so many stories about Alexa usage where kids were involved. They love to play with Alexa by asking it to play songs with gibberish names on purpose. You never know what you are going to hear next (usually horrible stuff which makes it more fun). Or they’d ask Alexa to make a fart sound (yes, you can do that).

For adult entertaining purposes, you can turn Alexa quizzes into a drinking game. Alexa has hundreds of built-in easter eggs, as the designers correctly assumed that the first thing people will do is ask silly questions. It has it limitations though: you can’t make Alexa hiccup (I tried). But you can make it whisper, and it sounds really beyond-the-grave-like. Not to give you any ideas, but Alexa is very good for pranks…

And of course, one colleague immediately changed the Alexa wake word to “computer”, because now he can finally feel like the captain of USS Enterprise.

Alexa accidentally…

When Alexa listens to you and your surroundings all the time, various incidents do happen. Although Alexa is great for pranks, she is also quite the prankster herself.

A respondent to the survey told how Alexa had scared the shit out of him when it all of a sudden, unannounced, started talking. In one house, Alexa started playing music while everyone was out. You can imagine the astonishment of coming home and finding Alexa having a solo party, playing surprise Bach.

In another story, Alexa picked up wake words from the TV – apparently, someone had called for Alex – and started to talk. Another colleague asked Alexa to “clean this room”, so she started playing country music. Someone’s Alexa didn’t really get what the user asked for, so instead decided to turn the lights off (yep, thanks a lot, Alexa). One colleague noticed that every time he uttered the word “oleksä..” (“have you” in Finnish) to his kid, Alexa wakes up.

My favorite story was of a colleague who was playing a video game. During a cutscene, Alexa piped up with “ok, you’ve set up the alarm for 7AM tomorrow.” Exactly what you need when staying up late playing video games.

Commercial opportunities and monetizing

So far, Reaktorians have got to enjoy using Alexa without commercials. According to Redditors, the Alexa dev team is working very hard to ignore commercial’s voice print/frequency, because there is an attractive possibility to trigger Alexa to do things through TV ads.

We all know how well it ended when a certain burger company hijacked people’s Google Home. I really hope that we are not going to end up having Alexa tell us that “today M-Market has an offer for oranges. Would you like me to add oranges to your shopping list?

42 out of a 122 answered yes to “would you like to develop a new Skill for Alexa?” so people really seem enthusiastic about this new opportunity. Having said that, we don’t want to pay for Echo skills. This has been one of Amazon’s business stumbling blocks: the first skill developers had to pay for Amazon cloud services when the skill started to get enough users – which was crazy!

Luckily, they have now changed their policy. You can build and host most skills for free using Amazon Web Services, and if you still get more users, you can apply for promotional credits. Recently, Amazon also launched a new program that will pay developers directly for building high-quality Alexa skills (yet only if they are categorized under Games, Trivia, & Accessories).

For comparison, I tried to look at the Google Home business model, but could only find suggestions. It seems that monetizing voice skills is an area for development – perhaps one that we, as a company, could explore.

Is Alexa useful?

The best answer currently seems to be “it depends.” Location-specific services greatly increase user motivation for using Alexa. Not having any available means that the gadget gets forgotten in its box.

Another big stumbling block for users in Finland was the lack of Finnish language support – although conversely, having Alexa not understand what you were saying to your partner also made it feel safer.

Lastly, Alexa’s usefulness in the home depends on how smart your home is to begin with. In general, people aren’t willing to rebuy home items like sound systems or lighting for the sole purpose of having them work with a new gadget.

Have an idea for how the Alexa voice interface could be made more useful for your business? Drop me a line at krista.jantti@reaktor.com.

Illustration by Aino Sipilä

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