What Would Alexa Do?

Amazon Echo

High praise from Tim O’Reilly, amongst other things inventor of the term “Web 2.0”:

Every once in a while, a product comes along that changes everyone’s expectations of what’s possible in user interfaces. The Mac. The World Wide Web. The iPhone. Alexa belongs in that elite group of game changers.

He goes on to talk about how the people behind Alexa got the voice interface right (and how Alexa being the first and only product to get that right):​

Alexa’s creators demonstrate a essential insight for the era in which we’ll increasingly be designing interfaces with and for intelligent agents. Human-Computer Interaction takes big leaps every once in a while. This is one of them. Humans are increasingly going to be interacting with devices that are able to listen to us and talk back (and increasingly, they are going to be able to see us as well, and to personalize their behavior based on who they recognize.) And they are going to get better and better at processing a wide range of ways of expressing intention, rather than limiting us to a single defined action like a touch, click, or swipe. (…)

If you’re making any kind of consumer gadget for the home–a TV, a music system, a thermostat, a security system, a wifi router, a dishwasher or a washing machine–you should be asking yourself “What would Alexa do?” If you’re an automotive executive planning to put a big touchscreen in your upcoming model instead of focusing on voice control, you should be asking yourself “What would Alexa do?” If you’re a software company, you should be imagining a future in which the devices used to interact with your software are increasingly conversational, and asking yourself “What would Alexa do?”  Heck, if you’re a restaurant or coffee shop with an app that lets people order and pay in advance, you should be asking “What would Alexa do?” (…)

What Alexa has shown us that rather than trying to boil the ocean with AI and conversational interfaces, what we need to do is to apply human design intelligence, break down the conversation into smaller domains where you can deliver satisfying results, and within those domains, spend a lot of time thinking through the “fit and finish” so that interfaces are intuitive, interactions are complete, and that what most people try to do “just works.”

​Conversational interfaces, quite obviously, make a lot of sense with a voice input. Alexa seems still to be the only solution that manages to keep the interface mainly on track. (That is, not redirecting users in every day usage to a touch interface once something goes wrong.)

After all the hype, conversational interfaces –remember shopping bots?– are still not at a state where they make a lot of sense outside a voice I/O context.

(Messaging & Chat bot platform app) Kik CEO Ted Livingston on chat bots after the initial hype:

When you look closely at WeChat, the chat app that has completely taken over China, you see that its success as an ecosystem of services comes down to the same things: low-friction access to apps; sharing-related discovery (as well as QR codes); a common interface; and messaging as the front door to a world of digital experiences. In fact, there’s no major conversation-based service in WeChat. Instead, there’s just a whole lot of instant interactions.

The natural habitat for conversational interfaces are voice interfaces like Alexa’s. And it looks like they will remain there for some time.

Charles Arthur, who used to cover technology for The Guardian, sums up the scepticism about chat bots perfectly:

A visual interface does require you to launch an app, but RAM is cheap, switching apps is easy (people do it all the time) and a visual interface is quicker than a typed conversation. It’s GUI v CLI (command line interface). Unless you know the magic incantations, GUI wins every time.

Chat interfaces remain fascinating to me. Arthur is right though, they will never be the right interfaces for all use-cases.

Rather than being a completely new paradigm (like multi-touch) conversational interfaces most likely will be perfect solutions for certain use-cases. But only certain use-cases, not all of them. And we are still waiting for the first manifestations of those solutions in a chat/messaging environment.

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