Amazon Echo and Google Home want to be frictionless… but are they?

Google Home Autofill.jpg

Settling down to watch a movie at night; there’s few of us who haven’t had this age-old argument with a loved one:

‘Can you just get the light?’

‘No, you turn off the light. I sat down first!’

Etc. Turns out, no one wants to abandon their comfy position on the couch. But in days gone by, someone inevitably would have had to. Now? Not so much. The technology gods of the universe have served us up two enviable smart speaker options: Amazon Echo and Google Home. And they’re delivering, apparently, ‘frictionless’ personal assistant services that can help with everything from the time-honoured light switch problem, to streaming podcasts, setting alarms, providing real-time weather information and even online shopping.  

On the surface, all of this sounds like the answer to so many of our problems. And what isn’t in doubt is that we all want a piece of the pie, and we want it now. While it took more than 30 years for the number of smartphones to outnumber humans, experts predict that it will take less than half the time for smart speakers: by 2021, there will be more of them on the planet than humans. Already, more than 8 million Americans own three or more.

Yet despite their popularity, there’s a dirty secret that lies behind our humble, all-helpful personal assistants: they’re not really that ‘frictionless.’ They misinterpret our commands quite often and beyond that, they severely limit our shopping options. But will these frictions in the so-called ‘frictionless’ experience ultimately limit their potential?


Convenience at its humble beginnings

The idea of a ‘smart home’ has been around for some time. Far before any of us had the who-will-turn-off-the-light argument, engineers around the world were making our home lives easier and more convenient with dishwashers, refrigerators and clothes dryers; the forerunners of home automation.  

Yet it was only with the advent of the internet and IoT that the idea of a fully functional ‘smart home’ began to blossom. Suddenly, no one had to get up to turn off the light anymore – you could control as many devices as you wanted from the comfort of your armchair. Convenience was only limited by connectivity, so to speak.

But there was a problem. Whatever device you wanted to control, you still had to have the remote – or your smartphone – with you. According to Dave Isbitski, the chief developer for the Echo, asking people to pull out a remote or their smartphone to do what they needed was ‘just too frustrating.’  What users really wanted, he says, was the ‘one thing, that one unifying device’ that connected everything. And it makes sense – getting up to find your smartphone to turn off the lights really isn’t that different to getting up to switch off the lights yourself. 

Smart home manufacturers realised things weren’t working, and Isbitski started getting invites to keynote at their conferences. The rest is history: the Echo was first released for mass consumer use on July 23, 2015, with Google Home joining the race just over a year later in November, 2016.

Suddenly, and for real this time, no one had to get up to turn off the lights. All you had to do was make sure that your smart assistant could hear you, and then your wish was literally their command. Lights. Off. Thank. You. Echo.


Investing in a frictionless experience

Your wish, your command. It’s a foolproof formula for the Echo and Google Home. That is, until they don’t understand a darn thing you’re saying and can only respond in robo-speak.

Anyone who has tried to give their personal assistant instructions knows that it’s more than possible they’ll get it horribly wrong. The internet is awash with hilarious examples of this – in one video that went viral, a toddler asks for ‘Ticker Ticker’ (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) to be played, only to have the Echo reply ‘You want to hear a station for porn…hot chicks or amateur girls?’

As funny as these bloopers are, they are also annoying and hardly the ‘frictionless’ experience that both assistants claim to offer.

The sophistication of the voice commands, however, is an area that both Google and Amazon are investing in, both from an understanding and a response perspective. To fine-tune Google Home responses, for example, Google hired Emma Coats, one of Pixar’s leading storyboard artists. She’s been instrumental in giving Google Home a much more complex personality, including a fitting response to a marriage proposal: Google Home now thoughtfully says ‘We’re at pretty different places in our lives. Literally, I mean, you’re on Earth. And I’m on the cloud.’

Sophistication in the area of understanding, though, is far more complex, Rohit Prasah, head scientist at Echo’s artificial intelligence unit, says that context, specifically, conversational and geographical context, as well as a knowledge of slang, is a big barrier to achieving a better experience with our personal assistants. On top of this, it’s only been recently that the Echo has achieved what’s called contextual carry over – that is, the ability to be answer two questions in a row about the same topic (without the repeated use of the wake word).

As challenging as understanding is from an AI perspective, it can potentially be solved with databases, but they have to be huge. We know that language is incredibly diverse and that computers can learn just about any response, so what they need is big enough databases so they’ll have a response for everything. Building these databases takes time, but is something that both Google and Amazon are investing heavily in.


But the shopping problem….

Google and Amazon are equally invested in making our interactions with our personal assistants as personal – and frictionless – as possible. Both Amazon and Google are increasingly introducing screens into the personal assistant experience thanks to the Amazon Echo Show and the Google Home Hub. But what about the actual actions that arise from these interactions on these devices? It seems like much less thought has been put into the outcome side of things, especially when it comes to shopping.

On the surface, being able to shop through your smart speakers or displays might seem like the ultimate convenience. But if you scratch the surface, it’s anything but…

Say you’re flat broke this week and you want to buy the cheapest possible paper towels. You ask your Echo to buy paper towels and she’ll only return results from Amazon so if they’re not cheap, too bad. And unfortunately, Google Home won’t do much better. If you want to buy something that isn’t listed with a Google Shopping partner then your wish is as good as not even uttered in the first place.

Both Google and Amazon have effectively created virtual walled gardens around their shopping experiences, muscling users into a restricted, more difficult and no doubt more expensive experience, in return for that small bit of ‘convenience.’ But the truth is, having such a limited shopping experience isn’t that convenient, let alone frictionless…so why are they doing it that way?

The reason is that your personal assistant still can’t actually let you shop the entire web. This is because in order for you to do so, your Echo Show or Google Home Hub would need to be able to help you successfully navigate the form fields of thousands, if not millions, of ecommerce sites. Specifically, it would need to accurately and securely autofill your name, address and credit card information onto any site (not just partner sites).

And the trouble is, Google and Amazon just don’t have the technology to make that happen.

But someone else does.

Meet Fillr, the single most intelligent autofill in the autofill universe. If Echo or Google Home were to integrate Fillr, users would no longer be limited to shopping partners – suddenly, they’d have the entire web at their fingertips. This is because Fillr’s technology autofills with incredible accuracy: their powerful mapping engine, algorithms and machine learning technology utilize Advanced Textual Heuristics™ to read forms as close to human representation as possible, enabling forms to be filled out with over 97% accuracy (as opposed to other autofills which are accurate only 53% of the time).  This means that, if integrated, Google, Amazon and personal assistant users alike wouldn’t need to worry about data going anywhere it shouldn’t (another reason they probably limit shopping just to their shopping partners).

What a frictionless experience would really look like

If by 2021 there really will be more smart speakers and smart displays on earth than humans, it’s reasonable to expect Google Home and Amazon Echo to deliver on their promise of an entirely frictionless experience. And we know they’re working towards this, at least from a voice command perspective.  

But the command itself is of little use if the resulting action can’t be fulfilled. So Amazon and Google, listen up: shopping from your shopping partners alone just doesn’t cut it. We all want - and in fact, expect - to be able to shop the entire web.  

It’s high time you invested in intelligent autofill so we can do this.

Fillr has developed ‘Autofill as a Service’, the world’s most intelligent and accurate autofill that seamlessly integrates into your app.
Contact us today to find out how our technology can help your customers to transact faster and more effectively across millions of merchants sites, boosting your conversions and revenue. Fillr is powering transactions on the world's top ecommerce and meta search apps, software platforms and phone manufacturers.