“Alexa, shop for…”
We test Amazon Echo's Alexa

Here at Preface Studios, we love to embrace technology – both at work and in our homes – and at Christmas we all found an Amazon Echo in our stockings! We’ve been looking at ways we can integrate it into our homes; connecting our music, ordering groceries and controlling our lighting.

Last year, we wrote about the rise of conversational interface (CI) as the next step along the road to enhancing user experience (UX) and engaging directly with people. So, we’re interested to see how retailers are beginning to embrace this technology and how it could benefit the companies we work with.

Who is Alexa?

Alexa is the persona behind the Amazon Echo – a wireless, voice activated speaker. Whether it’s to reorder essentials from Amazon, play music, track orders, dim the lights, order an uber taxi, turn on the heating, get weather reports and control other smart-home technology – it’s all possible without lifting a finger to swipe or tap.

Our first experiences have been interesting: it’s almost like learning a different language, with such a huge range of commands to learn. At first we all felt a little bit lazy. But we’ve soon picked up the habit of living with our ‘voice assistants’!

Why it’s taken off

The Walker Sands’ 2017 Future of Retail Report into the rise of the connected consumer recognises that the Internet of Things seemed out of reach until fairly recently, but it’s becoming more commonplace. The report cites three main factors for this. Firstly, 27% of consumers have an in-home smart device, such as appliances, thermostats or lights. Secondly, we’re more getting used to information on demand, with 64% owning a digital TV subscription. And finally, we’re getting used to voice-based technology: 24% own a voice controlled device at home.

Added to this, app download rates have fallen as mobile reaches maturity and people are seeking out new ways to interact and connect devices through voice activation. We’re focusing on the Amazon Echo here because we all own one, but it also takes the major slice of the market; with 70% as opposed to Google’s Home at 23%.

“In an age where almost a third of the global population is carrying a microphone connected to a supercomputer in their pocket, it’s not hard to guess at the huge swath of people that are primed and ready to adopt voice interaction as their input method of choice.”

Jason Umunwa, software entrepreneur.

Image credit Quora

Skills are the new App

Making purchases on Amazon through Alexa is very efficient, but to get the most out of it you have to activate new ‘skills’. Skills are like third-party applications for Alexa speakers; allowing us to connect software and hardware to our speaker, as well as play games and add different news sources. Each Alexa skill is made up of an ‘invocation name’ (like an app name), a set of ‘intents’, the phrases that map to each intent, and the software that can detect the intent and return an appropriate result.

For retailers other than Amazon, it’s still not a smooth experience. Ocado is the first supermarket to launch a skill for Alexa, but the experience a little clunky. You can’t create an order – only add to an existing one – but you can use it to find out what’s in season or get ideas for recipes. There are other companies who’ve developed skills, but you can’t always make payments unless your credit card details are already saved with the store, making checking-out a frustrating experience. However, this will get better over time and experts predict that in the next year Amazon will provide its own purchase API for third party skills.

Changing our mindset

Over the years, we’ve shared our insight into developing mobile first, responsive websites, but now we’re starting to adopt an AI first mindset. This is a hot topic among developers because it brings the challenge of designing a user experience, without a user interface. Although connected devices like Nest, Echo and Fitbit are much more common and they don’t have big screens, it’s still an issue. Capital One experienced this when they needed to design an Alexa skill for customers manage their finances.

How can Alexa help SMEs?

Industry commentators say that ‘retailers need to prepare for an explosion of voice-generated sales as UK consumers become more comfortable using voice devices in their homes’.

One of the reasons behind the popularity of voice search is that we talk more quickly than we type. However, humans are also visually stimulated, so it’s likely there will always be a need for some sort of interface. We think combination of both is probably the way forward, for example, if you ask: “Nike, show me running shoes that will give me the best stability when road running” and the website then displays a full screen image of the shoe, with an audio overview.

We’re currently talking to clients with ecommerce elements to their business about how developing an Alexa skill could benefit them and the possibilities to develop for website interfaces.

Achieving the right tone of voice

Conversational interface is a huge UX challenge and is part of the whole movement towards interfaces that don’t disturb us as much from the task in hand as touchscreens do. Consumers now have high expectations from their technology and we’re interested to see how brands use tone of voice to support their storytelling through CI and use people with different regional accents or the celebrities that endorse their brands to become their real voice. As we move from UX towards VX, we wonder if developers and brand experts will have to add ‘casting director’ to their skill-set.

An operating system for the home

In the future we see technology like Alexa becoming an operating system for our homes. We’ve notice there are still problems with the different ways we articulate ourselves and how we ask for things – you have to ask the right questions – but this will continue to improve.

When the term UX was first used, the original objective was to perfect the user experience to allow consumers to interact intuitively with the technology and treat people more like humans – with conversational interface, we’re one step closer to achieving this.

By Stuart Taylor. For further information on Alexa skills for your Surrey business, contact us on 01252 820022