Alexa, the Amazon Echo

If you’re interested in UX, you know that you should keep your products simple. It seems that every time this topic is brought up, someone feels the need to use iPhone or iPad as an example. “It’s so simple, a 3-year-old can use it.” Certainly this is a compelling argument, but it is rarely backed up by real data. I have a 3-year-old and an iPad, and I must say emphatically that iPads are not simple enough for a 3-year-old. Granted, my 3-year-old doesn’t get to play with the iPad very often, but when she does, I always have to be nearby because she is constantly exiting the app she wants to use, or accidentally bringing up the keyboard, or clicking on some add. The shape sorting apps are the worst (drag the green triangle into the triangle hole), because 3-year-olds do not understand multitouch.

“It’s not WORKING!”

“That’s because you’re[1] holding the iPad with your thumb on the screen, and the app doesn’t know which touch event to use to …”

The iPad seems simple enough for a 3-year-old because you don’t have to type to use some of the functionality, and though 3-year-olds can type, it usually doesn’t make any sense[2].

Less Interface is Better

I’ve had a notion for over a year that the future of the User Interface, and perhaps of computing in general, is less User Interface. In a previous (fictional) post, I hint at a future where user interfaces are essentially eliminated. In my book on learning to program I talk about the power of the command line, a single user interface to handle a shocking large set of computer interactions. Learning to do something new on your computer does not require learning a new interface; all you have to do is learn a new command. The command line has some serious UX issues, but the fact that it has survived so long is a testament to it’s usefulness and power as a user interface.

At the beginning of this year I discovered a device that really is simple enough for a 3-year-old. My in-laws got us an Amazon Echo for Christmas. I was hesitant at first, having experienced a few Amazon Fire devices. I was wrong to doubt. The Echo is amazing. I have used (and used to enjoy[3]) Google Now’s voice commands. I’ve seen people use Siri with varying degrees of success. But none of those has felt more natural than talking to Alexa (Amazon Echo’s human-like persona). She is always there, and she’s ready to help. She doesn’t always understand, but the accuracy is impressive. Most impressive, though, is how my kids have interacted with her. The other day they spent 20 minutes having Alexa tell them jokes. She understands them, and they understand her in a way they have never understood an iPad.

Single User Interface

Like the command line, Alexa has a single user interface. The only way to interact with her is by saying “Alexa” then some command[4]. In that sense, Alexa and the command line are shockingly similar. They both accept commands as input (in the form of text or the spoken word) and they return some output in the same form (text or spoken word). The command line is much more powerful than Alexa, but Alexa is much more forgiving if your command isn’t exactly right. As improvements in artificial intelligence (especially natural language processing) converge with User Interface design, I think we will see more devices and applications with a single user interface.