They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and I was very attached to my old Roberts radio. Although she was starting to look a bit sorry for herself -- a few knobs might have fallen off -- she wasn’t broken. Not very, at any rate. But then I met Alexa.
I was at a conference in the US and saw someone use Alexa... to order an Alexa. Not only had it arrived before the end of the same presentation, but its sheer responsiveness meant I just had to have one. I bought one immediately when they were released in the UK.
Initially I saw it as a music device with superior syncing, but a couple of months in, Alexa has become so much more. She knows my favourite radio station, holds my diary and gives me a heads up on tasks. Sadly, she is also helping my kids cheat on their spelling homework. But in spite of that, Alexa is genuinely adding value to my day.
Of course, I’m not the only one to spot her and fall head over heels in love. Alexa is attracting plenty of other suitors, and one journalist commented via Twitter: “I’ve interviewed a bunch of CMOs, agency people and other assorted ad folk this week. They all say the winner of #CES2017 is Amazon Echo.”
Echo is the slightly uninspiring bluetooth speaker that Alexa currently lives in, she also has the Dot, her pied-a-terre, but the number of places she can take up residence is potentially infinite. At CES, Ford announced it was integrating Alexa into its hands-free telematics Sync system. The headline from CNBC that Amazon is bidding to become the Internet of Things operating system may prove to be prescient.
Of course, we’re still at the bleeding edge of AI in all its forms, and like Siri and OK Google, Alexa is not without her foibles, although I’d argue she’s still a huge leap forward from those two. Urban myths abound and it’s all too easy to latch on to tales of Alexa ordering hundreds of dolls houses or suggesting porn sites to six-year-olds.
Personally, I don’t find interacting with her frustrating but that’s because I’ve taken the time to sit down and do a bit of reading. Clearly not everyone wants to do a GCSE in AI so they can access their 80s playlist.
With this in mind, brands that get on board with Alexa in the early days will have to work with -- not against -- her limitations. The integration with Ford is perfect because the voice commands are repetitive, simplistic and limited in number and nature. Focusing on the hands-free USP is a smart move by Ford -- and Amazon.
Taking that forward, brands that want to use Alexa need to think about that core capability. What’s hands-free and simple that’s going to help embed Alexa and AI in general into the public consciousness?
It’s a question of getting it into consumers’ hands (I’m not missing the irony that its USP is hands-free) in a way that absolutely works. In the same way that no-one really needed an extra way of ordering a cab, no-one really needs AI to adjust the heating by one degree. Now ask anyone who’s taken an Uber just once and they’ll say they don’t know why anyone does it any other way. But to capture the lightning the way Uber did, it must work 99.9% of the time from the get go.
Think cookery bots that let you follow a Jamie Oliver recipe while your hands are covered in goop. What about simple reordering commands so you don’t forget to get milk or loo roll in for the second day in a row? Perhaps delivery bots that can give delivery drivers real-time authorisation to leave a package outside because you’re stuck on the loo. It’s the simple, short term stuff that is going to deliver the really quick wins.
Like all technology today, I suspect Alexa is going to be permanently in Beta, something will always be quirky and consumer expectations are always rushing ahead of capability. But by managing those expectations and working with its true capabilities, Alexa can genuinely add value to users and the brands that serve them.