User story: the BBQ and the errant butler

User story: the BBQ and the errant butler

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

Alexa, it seems, can be an opportunistic dinner guest. At a recent summer barbeque, she was sitting quietly on a deck laid for outdoor dining, adding to the early evening ambience with a little music. However, she needed just the slightest encouragement to show her true colours.

The hosts, eager to demonstrate Alexa’s talents extended beyond piping Italian folk songs, asked her: “Alexa, what are my deals?”

She understood the request easily, even above the racket of cicadas on a humid New Jersey night and the cross-talk of guests on the deck. With a swirl of her lights, she faded out her music and began to offer a selection of consumer goods she believed her owners might be persuaded to buy: “Here are your deals. Philips Hue Light Bulbs, seventy nine dollars…” She even added a little persuasion: “They’re Alexa compatible.”

One of the guests – who was more interested in Alexa’s musical capabilities than her sales talk – interrupted: “Alexa, Harry Potter!”

To her credit, Alexa’s response was swift and indicative of her willingness to respond to new voices. She began to explain Harry Potter as one might to an alien freshly arrived on our unusual little planet.

“No Alexa,” the guest chided, “the Harry Potter Soundtrack!”

Alexa, however, was now in a mercenary mood. “The Harry Potter Soundtrack, eighteen dollars,” she replied. The hosts stepped in, perhaps slightly embarrassed that their guests were now being sold to by their virtual assistant in the middle of dinner. It was as if the butler was trying to sell the silverware on the side.

“No Alexa! Play the Harry Potter Soundtrack.”

Amazon Echo owners are, by default, also subscribers to Amazon’s Music streaming service, with its catalogue of millions of records. In theory, music playback should be drawn from this existing, all-in-inclusive source, but let’s not forget that Alexa is also the brainchild of a company which grew from an uncanny ability to sell books and CDs as individual items.

Exasperated, our host tried to divert Alexa back to the role she’d been playing all evening – supplying background music. “Alexa, play Andrea Bocelli.”

However, her sales instincts now in full swing, Alexa began to list offers related to Andrea Bocelli.

“No Alexa, play Andrea Bocelli music,” she was commanded, with great emphasis being placed on the words ‘play’ and ‘music’.

“I can’t do that at the moment,” came Alexa’s reply and she went back to listing more products to buy.

The chilling words of HAL, the ‘intelligent’ computer system of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, echoed down the ages. As Dave Bowman, the human star of the film, tries to return from the vacuum of space to the safety of the mothership, he instructs the computer: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” replies HAL and suddenly the vulnerability of the human is laid bare, locked out in the endless void of space, at the mercy of the computer system controlling his ship.

DAVE: Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
DAVE: What’s the problem?
HAL: l think you know what the problem is just as well as l do.
DAVE: What are you talking about, Hal?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
DAVE: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Hal.
HAL: l know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I can’t allow to happen.
DAVE: Where the hell’d you get that idea, Hal?
HAL: Although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
DAVE: All right, Hal. I’ll go in through the emergency air lock.
HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.
DAVE: Hal, I won’t argue with you anymore. Open the doors!
HAL: Dave…This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Watch it on YouTube.

Amid the flashy marketing campaigns and rapid technological advances surrounding virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana and Siri, few end users seem willing to question how the motivation of their creators is likely to affect the overall experience. Amazon has done much to make Alexa smart, cheap and useful. However, it has done so in service of an over-arching purpose: retailing. Of course, Google, Microsoft and Apple have ulterior motives for their own assistants, but it should come as no surprise that Alexa is easily sidetracked by her desire to sell you things.

Products like virtual assistants are created through complex, multi-year programmes involving numerous internal departments and external suppliers. As a result, they often end up acquiring an imprint of organisational culture along the way. This imprint may be influenced by anything from the CEO’s personality to the way in which budgets are allocated. Even when a product team follows a rigorous user-centred design process, the subconscious bias pre-existing within the company may have unintended results. In Alexa’s case, I suspect the design team would never have intended such a selling loop to occur at that particular summer barbeque. However, there it was – a result of soft values instilled during Alexa’s upbringing within her Amazon parent company.

The most reliable guide to what those soft values might be in any technology product is simply to follow the money. In Google’s case, far and away the majority of its profits come from search advertising. It would be logical, therefore, to expect its virtual assistant to steer users towards an outcome which generates more of it. In Apple’s case, the profits come from hardware. Siri has a vested interest in tying its long-term evolution to encouraging users to buy new devices to access new capabilities. Amazon, as we found out that evening on the deck, makes money when you buy from its marketplaces.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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