Why Alexa is more important than the iPhone

In 2007, Apple unleashed a revolution on the world. The iPhone was more than a phone. It was a pocket computer, a way to surf the internet as easily as sending a text, a means of connecting people, a tool for a million tasks. The iPhone quickly became an iconic piece of tech, and for years it led the smartphone market at the cutting edge of personal technology.

But now things are starting to shift again with the rise of Amazon’s Alexa and other voice-activated intelligent personal assistants. The core technology behind this shift has been around for decades, but new software developments make it potentially a bigger game-changer than the iPhone itself. And user experience design is going to be at the heart of the revolution.

We take a look at why Alexa’s incredible iteration speed, intuitive user interface and use of the chatbot is going to radically change the face of technology over the next few years.

Making release schedules a thing of the past

The hardware at the heart of Alexa, the Amazon Echo device, is relatively simple; an internet-connected smart speaker. It’s the voice-activated intelligent bot software behind it, and the other hardware devices it can connect to wirelessly, that give it additional capabilities. Alexa can control smart devices like lights, heating, power outlets, door locks, alarms and entertainment devices. And it’s already moving outside the home as cars start to roll off production lines with Alexa preinstalled.

This simplicity of hardware paired with increasingly complex interactivity is at the heart of Alexa’s power. Whereas smartphone platforms have to deliver updates and new features in cumbersome annual releases, Amazon can push out software updates as often as they want, even several times a day, adding new features and improving interactions almost without users noticing.

These new features can be major; in November 2016 Amazon integrated the service with Allrecipes, providing access to 60,000 recipes. Suddenly, users could ask “Alexa, what can I make with chicken and mushrooms?” and get a useful answer.

Compare this to the iPhone release cycle; a new handset every couple of years with a more subtle upgrade on the years in between. That’s a year in between updates, versus the potential for multiple daily updates from Alexa.

From a UX perspective, this speed of iteration is enormously exciting, because it allows ideas to be tested quickly on real users, with the capability to pivot back if the idea doesn’t work. It’s an agile working method that will create better user experiences faster.

A more intuitive user interface

As of January 2017 there were 2.2 million apps available to download for iOS devices. Android has 2.6 million. Although iOS and Android do have human interface guidelines, developers are not obliged to use them, and virtually every app we download has a different interface that requires an initial learning process.

Compare this to Alexa. Users still have to choose and install ‘skills’ through the Alexa app store, but every single one of those skills uses the same single voice interface. Because people are using the same interface to control all functionality, the opportunities for homogenisation and improvement are far higher. UX will be crucial to ensure people can communicate what they want to Alexa using natural language, but the basics of that interaction are simple and unchanging with no learning process required.

The rise of chatbots and the death of apps

A few years ago the smartphone app was the cutting edge of mobile technology. There was an app for everything, from big brand shopping to local council waste collection schedules. But as the proliferation of apps has become overwhelming and mobile web design has evolved, users are starting to move away from the app altogether. According to Comscore’s USA Mobile App Report, in 2016 half of all US smartphone users download no apps per month – yep, that’s a big fat zero.

But in contrast to that stat, a Flurry State of the Mobile report found that usage of social media messaging apps grew by 394% in 2016. And time spent on mobile app sessions grew by 11%, driven by the increase in messaging app use.

So what’s behind this massive growth in chat use at the same time as general app use declines? Industry experts, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Facebook’s head of messaging products David Marcus, see chatbots as the natural successor to the app.

This has big implications for brands. 90% of people in a recent survey have used social media to communicate with a brand, and people expect a quick answer. To meet this demand, brands are turning to chatbots. Backed by machine-learning technology, modern bots can learn from past conversations, using the data to respond better to queries.

The overlap with Alexa is clear; turn your chatbot into an Alexa skill and Alexa becomes another channel for customer interaction. Customer feedback integration has recently been developed for Alexa, allowing users to give brands feedback in real time from within that brand’s skill on the device.

And UX design will again be fundamental to a smooth user experience, as understanding user behaviour will evolve appropriate bot responses.

A user interface that works alongside life instead of taking over

There’s a growing worry that we’re too attached to our smartphones. US consumers spend five hours per day looking at their phone, and the average person checks their smartphone 88 times per day. Perhaps most alarmingly, we aren’t even aware we’re doing it, and people are experiencing compulsive behaviour; over-checking, phantom buzzes (thinking you’ve had a notification when you haven’t) and ‘leaky’ interactions, where we start a task but are distracted by something else on the phone.

Voice interaction systems could be the answer to this smartphone time-sink. Alexa interactions tend to be short, and because the devices it currently operates from aren’t portable, it’s restricted to certain locations. The effect of these restrictions is likely to be that companies explore ways to create more valuable and efficient interactions with their services rather than relying on constantly bothering users with push notifications.

Again, UX will be fundamental, reducing user error and improving the bot’s understanding so that more of these interactions seem valuable.

So it’s an exciting time for us in the UX sector as we look to Alexa for the next big tech revolution, a revolution with user experience and agile design at its heart.

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Adam Babajee-Pycroft

Adam Babajee-Pycroft is Managing Director (UX) at Natural Interaction. You may bump into him speaking at a conference or near the front at a metal gig.