If Alexa Could
Do you ever wish you had the ear of the engineers of a product you use. You could whisper ideas and suggestions based on your experience and need. They’d listen, and send you a prototype that cures every problem you ever had with it. The best we’ve got is a blog. I’ve had Alexa all over my house for over a year, and here’s what I’ve found that could be better.
The Echo Show in the kitchen sometimes fails to hear commands from 3 feet away, while the one in the living room picks it up. I haven’t figured out why it does that, but ESP is the technology Amazon created to prevent it, when it works. Nothing less helpful than the spaghetti timer going off in the living room while I’m in the kitchen trying to bake the sauce. Some people use alternating wake words to work around this problem.
Shopping By Voice
Everybody thought Amazon’s evil plan was to sell more stuff with easy voice purchasing. Turns out nobody uses it. I’ve got voice buying disabled, just to avoid a security risk. A few weeks back, we received a coupon if we bought by voice. So I loaded up the site on my phone, found the pocket knife I wanted to order and told Alexa to put it in my cart. It got the wrong product and put it on my shopping list. I cleared it and tried it again, specifying shopping cart. Right place, wrong product. Bear in mind, I was reading the exact title of the product off of the Amazon site. Three tries, with as many fails. This is why nobody shops by voice. I would never enable automatic purchasing with the risk of it getting it wrong, let alone the difficulty in differentiating between shopping list vs. shopping cart (and the different roles those play).
To automate a home, you need more than voice commands. Routines unlock the power to truly empower your home. Alexa’s Routines are a good start, but still too limited. I have Samsung SmartThings which has varying levels of scripting capability, even the baseline built into it is more powerful than Alexa. This matters, because the Echo Plus acts as a ZigBee hub, but with the limitations of Routines, a homeowner can’t achieve as much. Here’s a stack of things I think Routines should have:
Be able to execute another command as if spoken (thus unlocking EVERY skill in the system)
Be able to send a notification to a designated Echo
Be able to use multiple criteria for the “When” section, including specific Echo
Be able to trigger a timer with notification after the starting command
Website vs App Parity
I prefer to do most of my configuring of devices and routines on a PC. You can setup many aspects of Alexa, but some of it doesn’t exist on the web site (ex. Routines), other parts are only partially present (Devices), and in fact loading up the web site to configure devices with undo sub-aspects (like group membership) because that part of the UI doesn’t exist. That’s double-bad.
Double-Setup for Multi-User Household
Once I made an Amazon account for myself, I found that if I setup a Routine or Device using my account, it’s not there under my wife’s account, which is the default we use. It seems unlikely many people need this separation per user, the default should be that authorized members of the household can modify the common set of devices and automations.
My voice is my passport, verify me
Alexa can tell the difference between my wife and I, but she won’t automatically switch profiles, nor will she let us lock out other people from voice commands or add “friends of the family” to the mix.
If I set a laundry timer for an hour, I might be in the living room when I set it, and 30 minutes later, life has shifted and we’re folding laundry in the bedroom. Yeah. Anyway, it’d be nice if that timer realized where we were and played in the appropriate place.
Star Trek says Computer too often
Let’s close with a funny one. We really like Star Trek, and set out wake word to “Computer.” Then it kept going off whenever we watch an episode of Star Trek, because of how often the characters say that word. Good times, ensued. We don’t have that wake word anymore and I am sad.
For all that
We still like Alexa and use it primarily for turning stuff on or off and reminder timers. I under-utilize Alexa’s other capabilities, but these are things that impact us in how we use it. Not a show-stopper, but gosh, if Amazon wanted to make my day, they could spend a little programmer time on these.