The Danger of a Device-Based Approach to Assistants

on November 10, 2016

With Amazon Echo and Google Home now both in the market, dedicated device-based personal assistants have been in the news quite a bit lately. I’ve been called several times by reporters asking me whether Apple, Microsoft, or other companies need to have similar devices. But if there’s one thing the reviews and my own experience with these devices has taught me, it’s there’s a danger in equating your digital assistant with a device.

Note: this isn’t a review – but Carolina did a great review of her early experience with the Home yesterday.

Equating the assistant with the device

Amazon’s Echo began life as the only home of its personal assistant, Alexa and, although Alexa is now available on several other devices, my guess is the vast majority of users still equate the assistant with the device. Google, meanwhile, has made Google Home the entry point for its own Google Assistant and, for many people, Home is the only place they’ll be able to experience the Assistant for now, given the low uptake of the Allo messaging app and the high barriers to smartphone switching.

The downside here is, as people equate the assistant with the device, they will also equate failures by the assistant with failures of the device. When the entire purpose of a device like Echo or Home is to act as an assistant, to the extent the assistant fails to do its job, the device becomes useless. This is, importantly, very different from the likely reaction to failure by Siri or Cortana, which are mere features on devices that do much more. If we’re unhappy with Siri’s performance, we might well fall back on other ways to interact with our devices or be more selective in the scenarios for which we use Siri rather than the touchscreen because we have options. We may also choose to try again at a later time when the software has been updated because the assistant is still there on the device we’re using for lots of other things. But a device whose sole purpose is to be a good voice assistant and fails at that one job fails entirely and we will likely be tempted to return it or, at the least, put it away.

An assistant trapped in a box

The other challenge with equating an assistant with a device is users can easily have the sense the assistant is effectively trapped in the box. This is very much the case with Alexa, which doesn’t yet exist on smartphones or mainstream wearables. Leave the house and you effectively leave Alexa behind where she can’t do you any good at all. The Google Assistant has been designed with a much broader eventual footprint in mind but, for now, Google has limited its availability to this home device, a smartphone that will sell in small numbers, and an obscure messaging app. That’s a deliberate decision on Google’s part to sell more devices but it also means the Google Assistant will be similarly trapped in the home for many users.

Even when they venture out of the home, having many people’s first experience with the Google Assistant be tied to a larger device with far-field voice recognition technology risks disappointment when people then try it on a smaller device which is less effective at interpreting commands. Conversely, if Apple or Microsoft ever bring their existing virtual assistants to in-home devices like the Echo and Home, users may be pleasantly surprised at the improved voice recognition and will also enjoy a more mobile experience with assistants also present on their other devices.

An assistant that needs an assistant

The other thing that’s struck me again as I’ve been using the Home over the last few days is how important the companion mobile app is, something I noticed with the Echo as well. It’s almost like my assistant needs an assistant, not just for the initial setup but also for other subsequent experiences as well. One of the great advantages Google has in this space is the massive trove of web data it has to tap into but, of course, much of that data is visual in nature – having the Home read you a recipe all in one go is a terrible experience if you actually want to cook something and, of course, image search is also completely useless on the Home. You need the companion app to make sense of those things but, if that’s the case, then why not just use your phone? And, once you’re using your phone for some of these interactions, why not use it for all of them?

I’ve found that what you really want in quite a few of these interactions is to have voice interaction as the primary interface but with some kind of screen as a confirmation or feedback interface as well. A phone (or an Apple Watch or Android Wear device) gives you that combination but the Echo or the Home don’t. One of the frustrations I’ve had with the Home is that, when it fails, it’s often not clear whether that’s because it misinterpreted what I said or because it simply hadn’t been programmed to deal with the request, even when properly understood. A screen of some kind can eliminate that ambiguity.

Best as part of an ecosystem of devices

It’s early days in the history of these assistant-speaker devices for the home and I’m sure we’ll see some meaningful advances in the future. But I’m still finding the utility and performance of these devices is more limited and frustrating than transformative in my home. And I’ve been reinforced in my belief these devices have to be endpoints, not the endgame when it comes to virtual assistants and that such virtual assistants will only be truly effective when they’re part of an ecosystem of devices and not just a single device.