Introducing Alexa at home Part 1

word "language"

I am not a linguist but as part of my university degree I studied foreign languages and I have always found the construction of languages interesting.  I was particularly  interested in the cultural aspects of language and what this can tell us about a person or a place.  Communication is much more than just words and is very much about context and peoples experience.

Now being a UX’er, I’m interested in understanding  how we go about trying to create  exchanges between humans and machines using natural language.  Voice as a medium can be very compelling but as our language is such as complex business where elements such as emotion plays such a big part , how successful can we really be in recreating meaningful experiences with machines?  

Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) have been around for awhile but for me,  it was the introduction of Apple’s Siri that made me first try voice interactions.  And with the advent of Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, its seems that VUIs are fast on their way to becoming a mainstream consumer technology.

tweet re sale of alexa

Increasing sales are good news for Amazon and Google who are producing these digital assistants.  However, in a quick straw poll I did in my office out of the 6 people who had acquired an Echo in the last 12 months, 4 of them are no longer really using them.  Their Amazon Echo sits in a corner and gathers dust.    As a researcher I am interested in why that is the case.  Is it because this product doesn’t  work well or is hard to use or perhaps because it didn’t  provide anything particularly useful or compelling?

Being interested in technology and particularly in VUIs I thought good way to investigate  would be to buy one.    Not only did I want to play with one but also having read up on the advantages of having one in the home for older people, I wanted to get one for my parents.  Hopefully having a specific context of use in mind would mean my Alexa would be more popular at home.

I first had a number of questions.

Buying a voice assistant; which one should I buy?

I first needed to consider user needs.

I wanted to think of my and my parents context and what might be useful to them.   I came up with the following list of areas that i wanted to use this product for:

  • A shared calendar. To access shared diary such as Google Calendar. To record events such as doctors appointments, hairdresser appointments and to keep track of who in the family is doing what and when.
  • The Internet. To access the internet and quickly answer questions such as what date is it today, what is the weather forecast or what is on BBC tonight?
  • Audio books.  I use audible and really like it and wanted to introduce this idea to my parents.
  • Reminders.  Reminders could be useful for a number of things such as a reminder to take medicine or even just what days to take the rubbish out.
  • ‘Ask My Buddy’. Ask my buddy is a personal alert network and could be useful to set up at home.  When requested it will send an alert to registered contacts.
  • As an experiment. I wanted to see how and if this technology would be adopted at home.

Which one is better Amazon Echo or Google Home?

It depends on who you speak to. However, after reading several online articles it seems that as Amazon have a good head start on Google they are probably the safer bet.  But which Amazon product the Echo or the Echo dot?    As we know too much choice is not a good thing and once you start shopping for an Echo, it seems there is quite a bit to chose from.  I found the table below and the online review on Amazon useful in helping me decide which one.

amazon echo.png

I was oscillating between the Echo and the Echo Dot.  I liked the dot as it is smaller and cheaper (bonus) but I was concerned the speakers may not be up to scratch so I went for the original Echo mark 2.

What’s the technical set up?  What do I/my parents need?

A wireless internet connection is necessary as is an Amazon account, though it does not need to be Amazon Prime.  I wanted to trial it in one location and then move it to another and according to a variety of blogs and Amazon FAQ’s I should be able to do so. A smart phone can be used for set-up or this can be done via a online app (which is good as my parents don’t have a smart phone)


Decision made.  I went ahead and ordered one on Amazon Echo.

In the next blog, I will be looking at:

  • How easy or difficult was it to set up the Amazon Echo?
  • How easy or difficult was it to get those features I mentioned above, such as Google calendar,  up and running?
  • And most importantly, how did Alexa perform?   Was she useful and did she become part of my parents life or did she, like many of my colleagues devices, end up banished in a corner sulking?


Notes on terminology used above, what do all the different terms mean?

  1. Voice user interface (VUI) is speech recognition technology that allows people to interact with a computer, smartphone or other device through voice commands. Siri on the iPhone would be an example
  2. Amazon Echo (shortened and referred to as Echo) is a brand of smart speakers developed by  Google Home is Google’s version of this.   These speakers allow users to speak voice commands to interact with services
  3. Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant built into devices such as the Amazon Echo. Googles Assistant works with Google Home.



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