Alexa can do many things, but many of them probably not good. Perhaps it would be better to go in depth rather than in breadth. […]
Amazon likes to boast that there are “more than 900,000 registered Alexa developers who have developed over 130,000 Alexa skills,” but it’s still the case that it’s virtually impossible to actually use more than a small handful of these skills. Therefore, it is not surprising that after reviewing internal Amazon documents describing the slow growth of Alexa devices, Priya Anand came to the conclusion that Alexa’s biggest problem is that “people just don’t find Alexa that useful”.
This is both true and false. Many of us have discovered a great utility in Alexa, albeit in small, discreet functions. As a former Microsoft executive suggests, the secret to Alexa’s future success may lie in focusing on attracting enthusiastic fans to these smaller features, rather than trying to overwhelm us with 129,995 Alexa skills that we will never discover or use.
You had one job…
For years, our Amazon Echo has been standing in a corner of our kitchen table, our digital mind that always pays attention to our spoken commands. However, these commands are very limited. “Alexa, set a timer for the cake to 40 minutes. “Alexa, play ‘Girl from the North’ by Muzz.” “No, Alexa, I said: PLAY THE SONG ‘GIRL FROM THE NORTH’ BY THE BAND MUZZ!“ And so on. Quite simply. We are in the kitchen, we cook, we need timers and sometimes music (or audible) to accompany us. That’s 98% of our Alexa usage.
Chances are good that you feel the same way. Analyst Benedict Evans comments: “Alexa has proven to be a voice-controlled alarm clock with a low retention rate.“ How low? According to Amazon’s internal documents, there have been years when 15 to 25% of new buyers stopped actively using their Alexa device after the second week. Ouch.
For those who have figured out a discrete, repeatable task, Alexa is worth its minimal cost. As one commenter on Evans’ tweet notes: “I have numerous smart home devices: most of the lights in my house, fans, the front door lock, the garage opener, thermostats, many sockets, cameras, etc. We use Alexa to connect all these devices [stündlich] control. But without all this, I would have stopped using it after two weeks.“
This proves another point of Evans: “The underlying fallacy was that people thought they somehow saw a general AI and did not realize that a ‘voice assistant’ is just a voice-controlled telephone system.” So did Amazon overstate Alexa’s capabilities? Definitely maybe.
Doing this one job better
Brian Hall thinks so. Hall, who now heads product marketing at Google Cloud, but was previously responsible for the Surface business at Microsoft for years, among other things, believes that Amazon has not focused enough on potential, high-quality users for Alexa. “It’s so easy to think that you have the technology and the use cases will find it. Sometimes this works. More often you should focus on who should use the product and make it indispensable, then grow from there, “ he argues. “Alexa didn’t manage to do that”.
He continues, Amazon could focus on making Alexa great for the kitchen (which fits my use case). I bake a lot and would like to be able to ask for recipes instead of flipping through a cookbook or constantly waking up my laptop or phone to see how many tablespoons of baking soda I need to add. This type of engagement leads to greater utility and dependence on Alexa.
Hall says that this should be the goal, and not the hunt for Alexa sales figures: “If I [Alexa] I would find the real fans, make them even bigger fans, help them find the next people who should be fans, and build on that. They are after the sales figures and the weak engagement, and this is now becoming apparent.” Those who already own an Alexa device know that Amazon has tried to increase engagement by making Alexa suggest all sorts of things that you certainly don’t want (“Did you know that I can read you the calendar for the day?“) and suggests things that feel forced, such as buying things over Amazon.com.
Hall’s advice seems wise: make something big out of a few small things. When I first wrote about Alexa in 2017, the company had already developed 15,000 Alexa skills, and that felt like 14,995 too many. Just four years later, we are at 130,000, an increase of almost nine times. Meanwhile, people like my spouse are worried about the privacy implications of this constantly eavesdropping, somewhat incompetent genius.
If in four more years Amazon has managed to give us 1.1 million Alexa skills, but not a deeper dependence on a single one or a close coupling of a few for a specific situation, like a cook in the kitchen, then people like my wife will simply cancel the Alexa experiment. For a department whose operation reportedly costs $4.2 billion, this is a costly, failed experiment.
*Matt Asay leads Partner Marketing at MongoDB.