Should Virtual Assistants Be Humanized?

on May 25, 2016

Last week at Google I/O, we saw the introduction of Google Home and Google assistant. Like Amazon before it, Google made a distinction between the object Home, an Echo-like smart speaker, and Google assistant. Unlike Amazon, who called the brains inside Echo Alexa, Google did not give its agent a name and just referred to it as “assistant”. This detail did not go unnoticed as tech enthusiasts and commentators took to Twitter to have their say.

Google’s take on the matter was that people are already used to interacting with Google.

This is certainly true, not so much for “OK Google” which some still find a little unnatural, but for how Google has become a verb we now use to mean “internet search”. So many times questions that start with “Do you know…” are answered with “Google it!”

Aside from Alexa, we have Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, Facebook M and a new kid on the block, Viv. Most vendors seem to opt for personification when it comes to an assistant.

Who is the user supposed to build a relationship with?

Ultimately I think this is the question vendors are trying to answer when deciding whether or not to give their assistant a name. Many, myself included, argue giving a digital assistant a name deepens the relationship with the user by making it more personal.

Amazon lets you wake up your Echo with Alexa, Echo or Amazon. Yet, most of the people I know with an Echo use Alexa. Personifying the assistant might also make it easier for some people to understand what exactly the role is it has in their life. The hope for all the companies experimenting with digital assistants is for their assistant to become your primary agent, if not your one and only. Giving it a name allows for it to change shape and form like a genie in a bottle — one moment being in your home speaker, the next in your phone, the next in your car helping you with different tasks throughout the day. If the digital assistant is very successful, you might even forget who is powering it. Alexa might indeed become bigger than Amazon.

It seems to me Google’s approach wants to make sure that, whatever I do, whatever I use, and whoever I use as a medium, especially on a non-Google product or service, I am very clear Google is the one making it possible. Soon after introducing Google Home, a new messaging app called Allo was presented and Google assistant was embedded into that as well. This approach is perfectly fine. At the end of the day, if the Google Home video played at Google i/o becomes reality, who would not want Google to run their life?

Yet, while I entrust my life to Google, I am still very aware it is a corporation I am dealing with. Building an emotional connection would be much harder. After the initial Echo set up, my eight-year-old daughter asked Alexa to play a song and, as soon as the song started, she said excitedly, “Oh mom! She is awesome! Can we keep her, please?” I very much doubt Amazon would get that level of bonding. Humanizing our assistant however, creates expectations on how naturally we can interact with it. Expectations that, at this stage of the technology, are probably going to be unmet more often than not.

Going with linking the assistant to the company name, like Google or Amazon, increases the risk of having any negativity around the company impact the relationship between user and agent. Think about the Google antitrust investigation as an example. I would also argue that, while Google consumers are accustomed to relying on it for questions in the form of search, other vendors do not have such an advantage. For most consumers, Amazon is mostly associated with the brown box that shows up at my front door with what I ordered; Apple is about hardware and Microsoft is mostly relegated to my PC and work life.

Are most digital assistants female because of sexism or user preference?

Once the decision of humanizing your digital assistant has been made, there comes the even more difficult task of deciding on which sex said assistant should have. Thus far, it is clear that most lean to making their assistant female. Even in cases where the name is not explicitly female and the default voice is different in different markets, like in the case of Siri, (male is the default voice in the UK), general consensus tends to refer to it as female.

Why is that?

Some women link this to the fact assistants in the real world are predominantly female. Others link it to the fact that tech is still a very male-dominated industry and most women have supporting roles at best.

Some argue it is easier to find a female voice than a male voice most people will like. Maybe I am naïve or just a wishful thinker but looking more broadly at old GPS devices to automated call prompts, I found that those voices tend to be more female than male helping back up this theory.

Ultimately, I am convinced that diversity will come to digital agents in the same way it came to emojis. Well, hopefully it will come faster. Nothing will deepen that bond with our personal agent than a voice with an accent, a vocabulary, and a gender I can personally relate to.