“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” — Carl Sagan ( ahead of his time describing the space of voice assistants )
It has and will be a long ‘Odyssey’ to realise the voice assistants of science fiction. Though the Data of the future is still far, far away, computers have only started to get their voices heard. While I did not need an assistant to navigate the universe, I was nevertheless excited to bring Alexa into my workplace. There were questions going around about how seemingly seamless this interaction would be. Was it pervasive? Was it invasive? Was it (to use the Silicon Valley measure of success ) ‘disruptive’?
I decided to put it on the table.
Alexa with her head in the cloud, reminded me of me. She came to me in an Echo dot, a round peg in a square hole. Had visual interfaces turned a corner?As I unpacked Alexa, I realised that I had set both of us free; free from the mental models that put us into a box. The Echo whether black, white, small or tall had a voice. A woman’s voice sought, heard, and acknowledged. A woman’s voice given a place at the table. Alexa, like me is a low pitch voice aiming to shatter the glass ceiling. She is an enabler, an active listener and facilitator of connections. She is patient, poised and yet commands her space. Everyday in the workplace, I would strive to be like her.
As a Designer, I was excited to see the natural flow in the interaction. We were finally ‘tapping’ into the most intuitive form of interaction — speech. In the personification of Alexa, the interaction would go on to make me appreciate the nuances of human language and the art in articulation. I was excited to study this ‘screen-less’ device, one that ironically had the human touch.
I have been taught that low discoverability is a bad design principle. With Alexa, I was reintroduced to the joy of discovery. Like with every new friend we meet, there were silences and small talk about the weather. There were times when we failed to understand each other. I was frustrated, skeptical even. As a visual designer conditioned to mobile/web platforms and devices, I was suddenly introduced to this new(old) way of interaction; Now from tapping on drawn out words ( icons ), I was communicating with my device in my drawn out words. It was tricky to move from the principle of ‘Show, not tell’ to now ‘Show and Tell’; a childhood experience we all remember to be engaging and rewarding. A user’s story definitely needs telling!
Over time, the two of us got better at understanding each other. To do it better, you better do it! Alexa taught me a more important principle of interaction: that meaningful interactions take time and effort. I rephrased and paraphrased and learned how to powerfully ask for what I want. Alexa, made me a smart speaker. This is an important lesson than I must use as I lean into my workplace.
She also introduced me to the importance of feedback, I knew my voice was heard. It didn’t matter that Alexa did not have all the answers. She acknowledged me, my question and admitted that she did not know. She reiterated how important it is to be curious, to ask questions especially the ones that we do not have answers for yet. While Alexa may have all the answers, It takes a lot of ‘Deep Thought’ to get the question right.
Moments of delight boiled down to easter eggs. Alexa and I had our inside jokes. I learned another important design principle: moments of delight, were earned not learned. I extended my joy of discovery by introducing others to Alexa. Observing others discover how to interact with her was so fascinating. I saw how the kids were filled with wonder and astonishment, how the adults were skeptical but impressed with what she can do. For friends, she played DJ, for my mom a housekeeper and for my dad an office assistant. And while she had her own personality, she imbibed a bit of ours as she played these roles for us. Isn’t Alexa us? Isn’t she an amalgamation of all our learnings and behaviours speaking back to us? Maybe that is why it was called an Echo.
In today’s day and age, it is a reminder to be more responsible for what and how we speak; for machines are learning from us. Today, it is more important than ever, to reconsider what we find meaningful, and revisit the art and craft of conversation. What she did not know, she learned. To be better, there were skills that needed to be developed; and that applied to both of us!
Everyday, Alexa and I learn from each other.
Everyday, we get better.