Why Amazon’s Alexa Failed to Scale

Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

Even if you’re not deeply embedded in the technology world, you’ve probably seen Amazon’s announcement of moving away from it’s Alexa voice and smartspeaker division. Maybe not culling it altogether, but it will no longer have prominence at Amazon. They lost $10 Billion on that adventure. A couple of things are at play here and one of them is a failure to understand consumers path to buying and adoption when it comes to certain technologies.

The first issues that come to mind on Alexa in the early days are a few failures that have to do with Tech Giants and business practices. Bezos saw that Google, Apple and Facebook were getting into voice quite heavily. Egos being what they are at that level, stakeholder bias kicks in. Stakeholder bias can be deadly to any technology product. I’ve seen it destroy more than a few startups.

Stakeholder bias is when the founder(s) believe so deeply in their solution and how it should work that they won’t accept UX research findings, especially when it comes to the UX strategy. To the point that they’ll kill the product. In almost all cases, UX research will either validate the concept, negate it entirely or show where changes can be made. How significant was Bezos’ and teams stakeholder bias? It’s impossible to know.

Many startups and tech entrepreneurs tend to think of Steve Jobs brilliance in the iPod and iPhone. What they don’t know is that Apple and Jobs, had done a lot of research and been monitoring technology developments. That Apple uses sociologists and anthropologists as part of their product development teams. Amazon never has.

We should also factor in that voice automation and smartspeakers were a relatively new technology for consumer markets then. For the Tech Giants, especially Amazon, it was a digital land grab and an attempt to create a new market. But Google and Apple had, and continue to have, a deeper understanding of how consumers adopt and use technology. Amazon just saw it as a revenue channel. Anything beyond ordering products was tertiary at best.

This is shown in the poor sound quality of the speakers and that the UX really didn’t improve much over time. The internal push was to constantly attempt to monetise first. Consumers were and in large part still are, figuring out where and how voice fits in with their daily lives. And it’s not really to buy things even now. Amazon was using voice as a blunt force trauma device to get people to buy things.

That is not how people adopt technology. The internet itself took a few decades to slowly slip into the consumer markets. Granted, the infrastructure had to be built and the cost to access had to come down to a reasonable price point for mass adoption. Once it did, it still took well over a decade to become horribly consumer focused and took one crash, the .com bust of 2001, to reboot and regroup. Not that many digital experiences have improved much.

Primary overarching technologies, like voice, take a long time to become situated culturally. This is in part why many IoT devices still haven’t reached a significant market opportunity. It remains a lot easier to flip a light switch on/off by hand that dig out your smartphone, find and open the app and then find the light switch feature.

Voice is a UI/UX that is heavily impacted by cultural affordances. Things that get in the way or place restrictions on what we can do. We speak out loud, for the most part, to communicate with other humans. That is why we have language and can vocalise. So voice UI is very much a contextual use case. If it’s early morning and others in the house are asleep, you’re not likely to yell at a smart speaker to do things. In social settings, as UX research I’ve done has shown, people are self-conscious in how they use smart speakers. Some cultures will also use manners when addressing smartspeakers with “sorry,” “please,” and “thank-you.”

Apple and Google understand this very deeply. They also have the advantage of a much bigger ecosystem of devices and apps than Amazon and they aren’t focused on monetising voice first and other things secondarily. Voice as a UI is very different contextually and culturally. Technology companies that consider cultural implications to their apps and devices tend to do much better. Amazon tends to lack such awareness. When they launched the Echo line of products, I pretty much figured it wouldn’t last. Amazon did everything you shouldn’t do when it comes to digital products for consumers.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious