“Smart” Devices: Sometimes Dumber Than Bricks

This post is from our head of design Jenni McKienzie

Because I work in voice and  because we like gadgets and toys, we have multiple smart speakers and devices at our house. Both my girls requested speakers and outlets in their rooms to control their lamps. The other day, daughter #2 asked me if we could rename her outlet because she was having recognition problems (and yes, she actually said that – she hears her mama talk about it all the time).

She decided to name her lamp “Friedrich.” Not surprising since it’s a character she used to play in a video game, plus she has had succulents named Bartholomew and Ceviche. So Friedrich it was, although we put it in the outlet app as “Freedrick” since we have the language set to English.

And now the fun began. With one brand of smart speaker everything worked with no further effort, but alas, that’s not the one in her room. I spent half an hour digging around trying to find how to update it. I eventually stumbled across a procedure to resync a speaker and associated smart devices. That sort of worked. We had to repeat the process for every device, and it was only sometimes working. My husband finally figured out “Freedrick” worked to turn the outlet on but not off. The other interesting tidbit is if you say, “Turn on Freedrick,” it says, “OK, turning on the Freedrick.” We have yet to figure this out. Right now my daughter waits until she comes out of her room in the morning and leans over the railing to where the other brand of device in the kitchen can hear her request to turn off the lamp.

If tech companies really want people to use smart devices, they have to be easy. And not just the day-to-day usage; set-up and integration has to be simple as well. I have struggled mightily to add devices to my account, change linked accounts, change voice and language. I’ll read cool articles about new things you can do and try, and getting them enabled is not always easy. And sometimes, turning them back off is particularly difficult. I work with this stuff for a living. If I can’t figure it out quickly, there’s a problem.

The net result is that people dismiss the entire technology. “Oh, I hate those smart speakers, they’re too hard to use.” People don’t understand–or care–what part of a new technology is to blame when they have trouble. They just want it to make sense and actually deliver on the fun and convenience that convinced them to buy it in the first place. Voice technology has already been through one generation of rejection by the public because of poorly designed IVRs. If we don’t start taking basic usability more seriously, the new generation of voice may end up as nothing more than a novelty.

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