One of our areas of exploration is the smart home of the future. That means taking an interest in developments around the use of artificially intelligent assistants. Here, Simon Penny reports on a test using technology to better connect people.

Back in January as part of our Quick Hitter testing approach, we gave an Amazon Echo to a group of visually impaired customers in order to understand what benefits they might be able to get from having Alexa in their lives. Part of the role of the innovation lab is to spot trends and work out what value they might be able to bring to our business, colleagues and customers. There had been a lot of hype surrounding the launch of Amazon Echo, so we thought that Alexa would provide us with the ideal opportunity to test the emerging trend of artificially intelligent personal assistants. The test was never about solving a problem, it was about embracing new technology and seeing if we could use it to find a solution to problems we didn't know we had. We conducted the test in two phases:

Phase 1 - Would customers find a use for Alexa?

Phase 2 - Could we ensure that Alexa remained useful in the long term?

The first phase of testing was successful. Customers (and colleagues) found a range of uses for Alexa which moved beyond curiosity and on into useful application of the technology, which included listening to music, books, radio and news updates as well as asking Alexa general knowledge questions.

The second phase of the test has always been a little less black and white. In February we reported back that in order for us to continue with the test we needed to work through some problems. These practical barriers were largely concerned with connecting Alexa to Amazon accounts and fostering accountability with those who use it. We realised that we needed to do a little more testing before conclusions could be made on the success of the second phase, so we did some work to make sure that Alexa was working and stepped back.

Last week I went out to see how our customers had been getting on. I found that whilst they wanted to keep Alexa, the second phase of the test hadn’t quite worked out. Due to some accessibility issues and a change in staff, people hadn't really taken ownership of the technology and Alexa hadn't been updated with any new skills. Because of this, once the Amazon Prime subscription expired people didn't really use it anymore. Having spoken to customers and colleagues it is apparent that they did find value in having Alexa in their lives, but it was clear that something was missing as far as ownership was concerned.  Having got to know Alexa they now have some ideas around how they want to use Amazon Echo moving forward and need some help to give Alexa the right skills to allow them to get the most out of her. I have arranged to go back next week to help:

  • Identify colleagues and customers who can take ownership of Alexa

  • Identify what Alexa skills are required

  • Help colleagues set-up Alexa mk2

  • Say cheerio to Alexa and hand her over to the customers

I will write a final wrap up post following my catch up next week, so watch this space.