Alexa, stop being so compliant
Marcos Angelides
28 November 2019

This article was written for Campaign by Marcos Angelides.


Please and thank you. They say so little but mean so much. From childhood, we’re taught the importance of these words. They help us build relationships and turn strangers into friends. But these rules were designed for humans, not machines. If an inanimate object feels no emotion, is there any reason to be courteous?

In the modern world, tech products are built to be frictionless. Unnecessary actions are stripped from the “user journey”. And yet we’re already seeing signs that the quickest path is not necessarily the best one. As more people buy a smart speaker, their role in the home is changing. “Early adopters”, who are usually single men, no longer dominate. Families are the fastest-growing segment within the category. And families are finding that these frictionless experiences create friction elsewhere.

A study by Childwise suggests that children are unable to separate the role of etiquette between humans and non-humans. The way they see it, if you’re supposed to say thank you, you say it to everyone. Just watch how a child interacts with their doll or pet; they talk to them the same way they would a loved one. This presents a challenge for smart speakers. Children are now being taught to strip away the courtesy. To efficiently state their command. And that is bleeding over into their human experiences.

"To help our children learn appropriate communication, voice assistants need to start thinking about etiquette."

recent study conducted by OMD helped to shine a light on this. We spoke to 11,582 people in 13 countries, including the UK and the US, on their views of artificial intelligence and the way it’s impacting their lives. One parent summed up the challenge by saying: “We’ve changed how we talk to Alexa because our son was talking to his teacher like he talks to Alexa – we are more polite to her now, as is he.”

This is where efficiency over emotion becomes tricky. It’s fine to tell Alexa to “play my workout music”; it’s something else entirely when you bark the same order at a PE teacher. Tech companies are already taking note; both Alexa and Google have built apps to incentivise children to be polite. But as brands get more and more into this space, it raises an interesting question: how can brands help to reinforce proper etiquette?

While the role of a brand is to be in service of the consumer, it doesn’t mean being subservient, especially when parents are realising the impact that behaviour can have on their children. Brands, therefore, have a responsibility to expect a certain level of courtesy. At the simplest level, a brand could simply say “you’re welcome” after a kind request. But perhaps they could go further.

"Might a brand delay its response if someone doesn't say "please", thereby penalising them for their rudeness? Or should the brand decline to answer entirely?"

At the very least, it would be wise to offer parents options. Some families may prefer the freedom to say what they want. But others will welcome a little support when teaching their kids how to behave. All of this has implications for the future of voice. Brand managers need to consider not only how their brand sounds, but also how they want users to speak to them. In turn, user experience designers need to move from optimising the digital experience to augmenting the family experience. Simply fulfilling a task isn’t enough; they need to consider the impact that task has on people’s wider lives. Those implications will be very difficult to measure or optimise against, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

This is where empathy will play a pivotal role in the development of future apps. Brands that understand their audiences, and the role their product plays within their lives, will design more valued and valuable experiences. The ones that don’t will simply be forgotten.

The world of voice is still in its infancy and it will mature as it grows. But, like any infant, it can do with a little guidance from time to time. And the occasional nudge to say the magic word.

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