Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Internal Amazon Documents Indicate Limitations in User Exploration of Voice-Controlled Devices

Priya Anand, Bloomberg:

Amazon has also been using Alexa itself to nudge consumers to use the system in new ways. In recent years the devices have begun suggesting new requests that people could make, in the process of fulfilling whatever function they actually did request. Annoyed customers have struggled to turn off the feature. (There’s no easy way to do so, but fiddling with settings can significantly reduce the unwanted chattiness, according to an article published on the tech news website CNET in June.) “Almost every day after I ask quick things, I get, ‘By the way, I can recommend birthday gift ideas so you can buy more things from Amazon! Wouldn’t you love to hear that??’” an Alexa user complained in a recent Reddit post. “No, Alexa, the answer has always been no. Just tell me the temperature.” That kind of frustration might explain why some people unplug their speaker and toss it into a closet.

This article makes a big deal about the 15–25% of Alexa owners who stop using the device in January after receiving it as a gift over winter holidays. I am not sure it is worth fussing over that. Maybe they just did not want to be gifted an Alexa.

But I am fascinated by the last paragraph, quoted above. Siri does something similar, but suggests capabilities more related to the query you just made. In both cases, it seems like Amazon and Apple are trying to figure out how to solve the discoverability problem of services primarily controlled through voice. It is a heavy-handed approach that seems to disappoint users instead of delighting them.

It is a tricky balance because we still have no idea what we can try asking these interfaces, and what guardrails and limitations they have. I do not have an Alexa device but, if I ask Siri “will I need a tuque tomorrow?”, it tells me about the chance of rain. Not useful. We must be both very curious and very patient for what may be scant rewards.