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Can you hear my Echo?

Of bot love and the addiction to immaturity

by Tamara Himler


Echo / Alexa

How Amazon Dash and Echo are decoding our shopping habits and ushering in the voice interface.

“Alexa” is the name of the voice-controlled hands-free system from Amazon Echo. Since the smartphone, it is not only the first intelligent consumer electronics product with addictive potential for our everyday lives, but is also overtaking the visual interface as the interface between man and machine. This product heralds the era of the “Interface of Voice”. But the Amazon Dash Button also has the power to shake up our habits. Will we only be able to communicate with our electronic devices at the touch of a button in the future? What does this mean for design and digital agencies like us, whose core business includes the development of visual interfaces? Are our voice-controlled machines perhaps even the spies of tomorrow? We try to get to the bottom of these and other question marks in this article.

How it all began

Once upon a time, a young, angry man had a good idea – sounds like the beginning of a Hollywood comedy, but in this case it’s a real success story. It all began with 30-year-old Jeffrey Bezos, who thirsted for more in his life than a prestigious job on Wall Street. So he turned his back on security without further ado, quit his unsatisfying bread-and-butter job and founded the online retailer Amazon with a lot of idealism in his luggage. What started out as an online bookstore quickly developed into the world’s largest online retailer with unbeatably fast delivery times. Books of all kinds are of course still available on Amazon, as are drinking games, gift vouchers for diving trips and knife sets. Amazon reads pretty much every product wish from the fingers of the online shopper. What keeps Amazon at the top of its game is both its unerring understanding of the shopper in front of the screen and its fervent inventiveness. For one thing, its search and ordering service is so child’s play that every purchase is characterized by a sense of achievement and nobody has to bang on their keyboard for lack of understanding. On the other hand, Amazon continues to surprise us with innovations that can be ideally integrated into our everyday lives. This includes the Amazon “Alexa” talking box, which has been available on the Austrian market for six months, as well as the recently launched Amazon “Dash” wonder button.

The simple life

Dash and Alexa were born to make our lives easier, because at the touch of a button or voice control, material wishes are literally read from our lips. Amazon’s attempts to shorten delivery times using drones will soon mean that we will no longer have to wait 24 hours for our desired parcel.

Amazon’s Echo smart home speaker was launched on the American market more than two years ago and is now coming to Austria in an even more limited edition to conquer Western European hearts. Denn “Alexa”, wie die Sprachbox genannt wird, versteht unsere Sprache und sogar unsere Kultur. Apparently, however, the adaptation to the Germanic language was not as easy as initially assumed by the Amazon family tree, as the introduction to the local market took a little longer due to the delay caused by cultural differences to the native English language. But who or what is Alexa anyway and why can a box think for itself?

Easy as Pie

You don’t like the name “Alexa” and would like to rename your box? Unfortunately, the choice of names is very limited, as the only other options are “Amazon” or “Echo”. But it’s not about the name, it’s about the simplicity with which the Amazon Echo Bluetooth speaker can be operated by voice. Echo uses Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa to answer a series of questions. This type of voice recognition is similar to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. Echo can be placed anywhere in the room and connected to the Wi-Fi, and you can enjoy Alexa’s friendly company and chat with her. The female-named box switches on the lights, fulfills music requests, searches on demand for the right gift for grandma or the cheapest flight to a cuddly hotel in Mallorca. Sounds a bit like a SCI-FI movie from the seventies, doesn’t it? But the vision of being able to communicate with computers and machines is no longer a dream of the future. You just have to connect the machine to all your electronics and let it share your preferences.

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Is this the death of the visual interface

Interface design is a relatively young discipline that saw the light of day in the 1980s and went hand in hand with text-driven computer control as user interfaces. With the increase in computer workstations in the nineties and the global domination of the Internet from the noughties onwards, every design and digital agency knew where the journey was heading. Sepaking of Visual Design! Almost every digital product had an interface that needed to be used in order to provide the customer with the best possible human-machine interaction. And we try to play our part in these developments with our work. The digital user interfaces and brand presentations we have developed cover everything from user-centered financing advice (home loan calculator), special tools for compliance guidance in the medical sector (bsi Compliance Navigator) or functional and easy-to-use web store interfaces (Springer Checkout), the development of generally valid mobile app interface systems to enable variable digital branding (Springer App Whitelabel Design). But innovation does not stand still, and so the present day sees the vocal interface being replaced by the visual interface. Voice user interface means a contact-free way of communicating. Amazon Echo is probably the most prominent example of this, as “Alexa” no longer has a visually visible screen and no touch is required for interaction. It remains to be seen how this will develop for all market participants and what opportunities the voice interface offers for future innovations. Not touch-free, but with the mere press of a button, Dash amazes us.

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Not Sales, but Data

Amazon Dash came onto the market in 2015! Naturally with the aim of making everyday life easier for consumers. However, Amazon is not the digital Mother Theresa for stressed everyday fighters, but takes advantage of the fact that it retains our data. The online mogul analyzes our purchasing behavior using stored facts and uses its knowledge during our purchase processes on Amazon by guiding our purchasing intentions into certain decision-making paths. A lot of assistance and a bit of manipulation. But what can the wonder button actually do? The Amazon Dash Button is a Wi-Fi connected device that allows you to reorder your favorite product at the touch of a button via Amazon Echo or via the Amazon app on your smartphone. The small button can be attached wherever the product is stored in the household. As soon as it runs out, you press the button and the order is forwarded to Amazon via Echo and delivered shortly. Each Dash can only buy one specific product, namely the one whose logo is printed on the front. How much or which variant of this product you want is determined during configuration via the app. For example, which type of detergent in which pack size you would like to buy. Once this is done, all you have to do is press the button once and the order is sent to Amazon via the Internet. It’s practical and simple anyway. For some of us, it might even sound like a dream life: goodbye supermarket queues! Finally, we can spend our sparse free time on more important things than looking for cleaning products for our dirty socks. For all those who are already on the lookout for the Dash magic button, there is a small damper here: Unfortunately, the Dash button is only available for Amazon Prime members so far.

Echo and Dash understand me

Yes, Echo understands us. But only if you are an adult without dialect coloration, because otherwise Echo unfortunately doesn’t hear our voices. Children’s voices seem to be completely blocked out by Echo and even harsh accents and dialects are not recognized by our popular smart device. So you have to pull yourself together, don’t break out your Vorarlberg dialect in front of the box and give orders in a clear voice.

The purpose of the Dash Button is to make shopping easy for the end consumer. In German-speaking countries, Amazon Dash has so far added 35 brands to its range. In the USA, where the system was introduced a year and a half ago, more than 100 brands are now using Dash buttons. The choice of products is therefore clearly limited. However, it is certain that buying by click is very time-efficient. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether shopping in this way is fun. But one thing is already clear: with Dash, a shopping list is officially a relic of the past. Ob Shopping auf Knopfdruck auch sinnvoll und schlau ist, ist eine andere Frage; zum einen bindet man sich an eine Marke, ein Produkt und verschließt sich möglichen Alternativen. Secondly, there is no price comparison and you always pay the price set by Amazon. In addition, you pass on your data, preferences and purchasing behavior to Amazon almost unconsciously. So the consumer pays a price for the simple life: the exchange of intellectual property and allowing targeted manipulation through unconscious disenfranchisement in purchasing decisions.

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The deliberate surveillance?

The knowing intervention of Echo and Dash, which are connected to a place and not to a person, is accepted by us idealistic humans seemingly without will. Amazon is already a generally accepted part of our everyday lives, which is why we have now placed our trust in the online seller. Let’s face it, the mainstream Amazon brand has mellowed us with its hazard-free demeanor and ubiquity in last-minute gift emergencies. So why shouldn’t we also place our unconditional trust in Amazon’s products? Echo is not perceived by most people as a high-tech product. Well, Echo has a voice – like Siri – but no screen or buttons – like a TV or smartphone. No, Echo embeds itself inconspicuously in our living space and therefore in our living room. For conspiracy theorists, Echo might seem like a little secret agent sitting silently in the corner, but still overhearing everything that is said in the household on a daily basis. Taking the secret agent construct a little further, combined with the entirely legitimate concern about how this data could be used by the government and law enforcement, Echo’s role in enabling the surveillance culture should not be underestimated. Sooner or later, the question may even arise as to whether the individual data stored by Alexa can be released and our knowledge stored by the box can be passed on.

This is not the end

Amazon’s latest achievements are interesting and impressive. Despite all the skepticism and fears about data processing mechanisms, the fun and ease of entertainment products must not be forgotten. Alexa and Dash can simplify our lives, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, despite all the simplicity and product loyalty, it would still be a shame if we were to allow ourselves to be deprived of the freedom to choose what we want to buy. After all, it’s the variety and diversity that make everyday life so appealing, isn’t it?

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