“Alexa, play U2.”
“Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”
Alexa is quickly becoming the home automation and assistant of choice for many households. Alexa, is a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant that is the brains behind the Amazon Echo smart speaker.
Alexa and the Echo can help you stay organized and entertained, and control many aspects of your home. While there are some competing produces in the market — Google Home offers similar features — the Echo is unique in that it actually signals a major shift in what consumers expect from new technology. Voice recognition and artificial intelligence have barged through our front doors with Alexa and now it’s creating a new paradigm for user experience.
What Makes Alexa DifferentOver the last decade or so, the majority of user experience design has been highly focused on making digital user interfaces attractive, intuitive and “easy” to use. As the proliferation of technology continues to spread into new and different areas of our life, the manner in which we interact with information and technology is slowly evolving to become more relevant and sensitive to our contextual needs. With this advancement, we are seeing new and exciting ways in which we can move beyond the limitations of a 2 dimensional screen, and begin interacting with the digital world in ways we have previously only fantasized about in Science Fiction. Alexa opens the door to a whole new world of digital interaction that can comfortably occur exclusively through sound, if need be. Even Siri, one of the first voice-controlled assistants, returns results on your device that you need to read and select from in order to find what you need. By combining its capabilities with traditional digital interfaces, 3rd party app services, and eventually robotics – Alexa is poised to be able to serve you with exactly what you need and/or request in a manner (visual, audible, and even physical) that comfortably addresses your need within a specific context.
Alexa, presents a unique challenge for designers and users, though, because there isn’t a visual user interface (although it come with an Alexa mobile app to help with setup and configuration). Once you have given the device “skills,” so it knows how to respond to your voice commands, Alexa does everything via voice. The device prioritizes the voice command (i.e., “Alexa, do …. “) above all else, which ensures that it doesn’t start turning on lights and setting timers at random, but there is no visual output of the response to your query other than a glowing ring indicating that the request has been registered. In this regard, UX Designers must become more acutely aware and empathetic to the subtleties behind human communication and the emotional cues that can drive those interactions, and for the technology to be focused on “hyper-personalization".
Alexa is indicative of what we can begin to expect from just one of many new “channels of interaction” and user experience in our near future. Alexa marks the beginning of a new frontier in user experience design that is more intuitive and personal. It is a paradigm shift in how consumers perceive their relationship with technology that will allow us to grow more comfortable and acceptable of not just voice-activated controls, but a ubiquitous connected world that is always on and always ready to serve.
Intuitive UXRight now, when you want Alexa to do something, you need to provide a command. Yet it gets smarter all the time, not only remembering your commands, but learning your speech patterns and preferences. So while for now, you may need to specify the source of your morning news headlines, eventually tools like Alexa will be able to automatically provide the headlines you not only prefer, but are also “appropriate” for you with a simple command.
Personal UXLet’s say you are looking for activities for a night out with your friends. Right now, you can ask Alexa for recommendations using Yelp. She will return several highly rated results, and you can have a nice dinner at Union Square Café or a pint at The Spotted Pig if you are in New York.
As devices become more intelligent, though, and various pieces of your life become more connected, you will be able to receive even more personalized recommendations that are contextualized to your mood, time, place, current interests, etc. This ability to cross-reference your requests with many other nuanced facets of your life, such as your own user history and preferences, will ensure that when you ask for recommendations of what to do on Friday night, your intelligent assistant can respond with information about dance lessons (based on your recent search for salsa dance lessons) and a local paint and sip (based on your Pinterest boards related to DIY projects), for example.
What It All MeansCould the Echo and Alexa cross the line from creating a “great user experience” into “creepy,” since it is always listening and collecting information; let’s hope not. For now, Alexa is truly changing the way device designers are approaching product design and creating user experiences, and challenging our thoughts about data privacy and security.
For years, designers have been focused on creating devices and applications that are designed for visual interactions, on devices that fit in the palm of their hands. What Alexa reveals is that it is possible to have a phenomenal user experience in a plain package, via voice-command and artificial intelligence. If what happens behind the scenes is powerful and efficient enough, there may be less of a need for as much of a visual experience or a user interface.
Amazon Echo and Alexa are not perfect, and present some limitations in terms of UX, however, the device is a harbinger of what is to come, and will set the tone for what users expect going forward. Tailored, personalized experiences will become the norm, with devices expanding their functions using the information they are provided and serving as a sort of filter to the digital world — whether that means finding the next great book to read or reordering filter cartridges for the kitchen faucet.