Photo from CNET Amazon Echo Review

Amazon Echo UX Review: Experience the Interface of Voice

We’ve all heard about them: Amazon Echo, Google Home, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple’s infamous Siri. All the big giants that top the tech world’s stock market are fight to be the “it” voice-activated systems. Why? Well, as people become more and more familiar with technology, they are becoming more open-minded to letting technology do work for them – which gives them the license to be a bit lazy…ahem… I mean efficient. Aren’t we all about efficiency these days?

Amazon Echo UX Review

So I definitely can’t claim to be an expert in voice-activated systems, but I have been around Amazon’s product, Echo. Of course, the Amazon Echo would not be complete without it’s voice recognition platform, Alexa. I thought it would be interesting to do a teardown of my experiences with the Amazon Echo and Alexa. Though I don’t have one in my own home, my boyfriend purchased the Echo when it was just released and I’ve loved using it so much at his place that we even bought one for my parents!  

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Amazon Echo, it’s a sleek, cylinder-shaped personal assistant powered by Amazon. Through Echo, you’ll meet Alexa. She is voice activated and can do a myriad of things to make your life easier, or at least that was the intention! Alexa can also connect to any enabled smart devices in your home: Philips Hue Bulbs, Belkin Light Switches, Nest products, and Honeywell Thermostats, to name a few. She also comes with the Echo app that you can install on your smartphone to control which skills she learns, see her command history, and track any actions she’s taken on your account. She’s connected to your Amazon account so you can spend more money on Amazon, with less friction. Truly smart, right?

Photo from Amazon.com Product Page
Photo from Amazon.com

The Good

After experiencing life with Alexa for a little over a year, here are some things we’ve figured out she does really well:

Basic Info Lookup

Alexa can do basic information searches fairly easily and accurately. She can basically pull up anything a Knowledge block would display on a simple Google search. She can tell you when Taylor Swift was born, how Rogue One did in the Box Office, and what the weather is going to be like today. This is great for settling that rowdy Saturday night debate you got into with a group of your friends.

Simple to Learn and Use

When my grandparents are visiting the US, they talk to Alexa every day at my parents house! All they had to do was learn how to say “Alexa” in a semi-American accent and pick up her speech pattern so that she would recognize and respond. But now, my grandmother has full conversations with Alexa about the weather and current events! Using the Amazon Echo is so simple and easy, you don’t have to be tech savvy at all to leverage this piece of technology. It simply fits in seamlessly, because all you have to do is talk.

Math!

Alexa is amazing for this. I’ve forgotten how many tablespoons are in a cup more times than I can remember. (It’s 16 tablespoons in a cup, by the way.) It’s so great to simply yell, “Alexa” and get the answer in a moment! I can also ask Alexa to do simple math while baking like, “What is 4 times 28 grams?” It’s perfect because when you’re cooking or doing anything similar that you’ve got your hands full and can’t pull up your phone or laptop to do a Google search. (On a side note, Siri does this pretty well on the iPhone too!)

Time-Related Talks

Another thing Alexa is great at is setting timers and alarms. All you have to do is ask! Oh yes, and she can tell time! Boom!

Bluetooth Speaker Connection

This one has to be one of my favorite Amazon Echo features. You can simple ask Alexa to go into pairing mode, pop open your phone or laptop and connect to the Echo’s Bluetooth speakers. And viola, you’ve got a dance party going!  

Ordering Amazon Products

Oh, and of course this product review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that Alexa can also order you a refill on your toilet paper. Again, all you have to do is ask! And don’t worry, Alexa does not place the order on Amazon for you, you can review the request on your phone and approve the order before it goes out.

All of the above mentioned features aren’t crucial to my daily life, but boy do they make it easier. I could definitely live without Alexa (I don’t actually have one in my own apartment), but what this fancy little gadget does do is give me the license to be a little bit lazy. As a user, I don’t have to get up and walk towards my phone to do a simple Google search, all I have to do is summon Alexa. What’s interesting is that here, Alexa is not a digital interface, but a voice interface. It’s probably the most frictionless interaction one can have with an interface. All I’m doing is having a simple conversation, which I probably would do if I was hanging out with a friend. I’m already used to asking the person next time me simple facts (like how many tablespoons are in a cup) or what time it is. But now I can ask Alexa!

The Not-So-Good

So that’s all the good, what does Alexa not do well? Just like any shiny, new piece of tech, there are a handful of things Alexa has yet to learn (ahem, Amazon, listen up!):

In-Depth Info Lookup

As I mentioned earlier, Alexa is great at looking up simple facts and pieces of information that are pretty basic. However, if you were to ask her why ice floats on water, she  wouldn’t really be able to give you a full explanation. If you compare Alexa to Siri here, Siri would probably win because she can actually give you a link to an article of some sort. There isn’t really a good way for Alexa to do that yet, perhaps a better integration with the phone would be useful here. It would be great to have links or resources to point to and read after Alexa did the research.

Reminders

I have yet to get Alexa to remind me about something properly. She always just puts what I ask her to do on my “to-do list.” She doesn’t actually know to remind me at a specific time. Again, Siri does this pretty well too. I’m sure there are some Skills that I could download through the Echo app for Alexa to get better at reminders, though I haven’t found the right one yet.

Echo Smartphone Application

I was playing around with the app that Alexa connects to on the iPhone and am pretty unimpressed. It looks like Amazon developed and released this app 3 years ago when the Amazon Echo came out and they never really went back to update it. Discovering new “skills” to teach Alexa is pretty difficult, and I’m not really sure if the recommendations are accurate or useful to me. All of the Echo app capabilities are crammed into a bloated hamburger menu, so it’s pretty tough to navigate and find what I want in the app.

Doesn’t Reflect Phone Applications

Browsing through the Skills that can be integrated with Alexa, I came up with very few that I actually wanted to download and install. I was pretty disappointed. I sat down to think a little more about this and realized that the Alexa Skills store didn’t really reflect the apps I use on a regular basis; the Alexa Skills store isn’t developed enough yet. For example, I’d love to have an integration with MyFitnessPal so that I could tell Alexa to log the 1 cup of Trader Joe’s Non-Fat Greek Yogurt I just ate. It would be amazing if Alexa could summon Andy Puddicombe from Headspace to lead me through a 10 minute meditation. I would love to see a Google Calendar integration as well. Unfortunately, since the user base of the Amazon Echo is so small right now, developers haven’t prioritized creating apps or Skills for Alexa. Since none of these apps exist in the Alexa Skills store, I’m not likely to download many skills for Alexa to learn.

Always On Voice Recognition

In theory, this feature is great; Alexa is always listening for her name so that she doesn’t have to be turned on at a button when you want to ask her something. However, this means that she will also turn on and start listening when you say “Brexit” or “hex code” and in turn will respond to you out of the blue with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you asked.” The first few times this happens, it’s kind of funny, but after awhile it tends to get a bit annoying. I often say the name “Alexa” accidentally without intending to ask her something. Because of this, my boyfriend Tushar has taken to calling her, “She Who Must Not Be Named” every time we refer to her!

All in all, the Amazon Echo and Alexa are great with the simple stuff. Alexa is basically a helping hand that let’s you continue to do what you’re doing while giving you the answer you need or help you need. Unfortunately, the Alexa platform itself still has a lot of development to undergo. The voice recognition isn’t mature enough yet; she mishears things and starts responding when no one asked her to. Alexa can’t do much more than simple tasks, right now; perhaps this is still being worked on by Amazon’s Echo team. Lastly, the platform of Alexa itself is still in it’s early stages.

Since adoption of the Amazon Echo is so low, businesses haven’t invested time and effort into developing for Alexa. This situation is very similar to when the iPhone 3 came out, and there were barely any applications on the App store; it was because barely anyone had an iPhone! The Amazon Echo may be ahead of it’s time right now; most people don’t even have smart home gadgets like Hue Bulbs or Nest Thermostats, so they don’t need a little pod to control them. Most people who own an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or something similar are probably savvy users who like to own the newest technology; they are the first movers in the classic product adoption curve. However, as more people begin to use the Amazon Echo, more companies will begin developing integrations with Alexa, which will then cause even more people to purchase and use the product It’s a snowball effect! Before we know it, everyone’s going to have a perky little personal assistant named Alexa in their homes!

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