Alexa, My Boyfriend’s Other Girlfriend

By Anna Ho, Strategist

I sarcastically refer to my boyfriend’s Amazon Echo, “Alexa,” as his other girlfriend, because I swear, like a jealous paramour, she’s trying to undermine me and get me out of the picture. When my boyfriend first told me he had purchased the wireless voice command device, I did not think much of it. Unimpressed by my handful of garbled interactions with Apple’s Siri, I expected similar results from the Echo. However, Alexa, unlike that minx Siri, proved to be much better at languages — natural language processing, that is.

Networked and connected to a host of WeMO switches, my boyfriend’s “Alexa” is equipped with the ability to command connected devices throughout the home. Truthfully, as a hub for electronic appliances in the home, Alexa has proven quite useful. I know what you’re thinking…how much effort does it take to flip a light switch? Trust me, it does not take much to get used to having Alexa cue the living rooms lights as soon as she detects your approach home through geo-location. No more fumbling around the dark for the light switch!

Perched atop a marble island, Alexa sits in the heart of the kitchen, like a maestro conducting a company of connected devices and web apps. I remember when I first encountered Alexa, being quite impressed by her effortless recognition of my voice commands. Alexa, what’s the weather in Seattle? Alexa, tell me a joke. Alexa, play some Alicia Keys. Alexa, turn on the humidifier.

“Ok,” Alexa replied dutifully.

With minimal fuss, it seemed like Alexa was catering to my every command.

It wasn’t until about a month or so after she “moved in” that Alexa started acting up. “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light.”

“Sorry, which device did you mean?”

A bit more loudly, I say, “Alexa, turn on the KITCHEN LIGHT.”

“Sorry, which device did you mean?” she says with a smirk in her voice.

This time, more emphatically, I say, “ALEXA, TURN ON THE KITCHEN LIGHT!”

No response.

My boyfriend walks over and casually says, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light.”

“Ok,” chirps Alexa.

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Now, I know that most people would have given up after the first or second try and have just walked over to the light switch and chalked up Alexa’s unresponsiveness to a limitation of the voice technology. Strangely, when it comes to finicky electronic machines, especially so-called smart devices, I’m quick to ascribe human emotions to inanimate objects and take their unresponsiveness quite personally. The copy machine that repeatedly jams when I print — hates me. The ultra slow computer that keeps crashing — is old and sick. My old iPhone with all its embarrassing autocorrections — possessed.

My tendency to apply human emotions to machines reminded me of the Media Equation, a theory based on the research of my old professors, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, claiming that people tend to treat computers and other media as if they were real people. Unknowingly, the social norms or rules we hold around interpersonal communication or human behavior, we apply to human computer interactions. When it comes to interacting with technology, our perception of reality often times override actual objective reality. On one hand, I know that Alexa is a piece of hardware, programmed by engineers and reliant upon cloud based processing. On the other hand, with every interaction, I momentarily find myself scrutinizing her responsiveness, looking for signs of insubordination.

I’m still not entirely convinced that Alexa doesn’t have it out for me, but my experience with the sleek wireless cylinder is a good reminder that when it comes to designing digital products or experiences for users, we must not forget that humans are predictably irrational. As devices become “smarter” and more responsive to user behaviors and contexts, i.e., more human-like, it’s important not to lose sight of the rules and assumptions that govern the social, natural world when building digital products for humans. For these assumptions can impact your user’s perception of the product and have the power to mark them as friend or foe.


Interested in how the latest Voice User Interface technology is impacting users? Click here to see how technology like Amazon’s Alexa platform could positively impact entire industries, such as healthcare, and how this could be utilized to improve the intersection of patient care, hospital staff, and insurance providers.

 

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