Siri, Alexa, Viv, Google?: Why Google needs to give a name (and personality) to Google Home

An Identity With No Name

Google stated, during Google IO 2016 they made a conscious choice to not give the new Voice First device, Google Home a human-like name. Google Home is activated by saying “Ok Google” or “Google”. They reasoned that the voice service they created has already been used across Google products should remain:

  • Genderless
  • Have no overt personality
  • Have no obvious country of origin

The premise is Google Home is an appendage to the fundamental Google Search product and the aim is to create a design thesis that is similar to the Google search front page. I assert that the premise Google used was not thought out in the correct context.

Anthropomorphism

Humans throughout history from the earliest cave paintings to our most modern movies we have assigned anthropomorphism [1] to inanimate and animate objects.

We humans assign anthropomorphisms to objects for a grand arc of reasons. One premise is though evolution we have developed a preference to build human-like personality around things we grow attached to. Attachment is connected to our need to form friendship and kinship. We tend not to do this with inanimate objects in this epoch but we do this with animate objects and our pets.

With the earliest voice systems it was natural to assign a human name an therefore a human personality to the system. From Bell Laboratories, Audrey in 1952 on through to Siri, Alexa and Viv it has been a natural and logical process to assign anthropomorphisms to these voice systems.

Siri, Alexa, Viv and Google?

I have used Voice Systems since the 1980s and the Commodore Vic 20 speech synthesis boards I designed in that era. Most recently I have been a daily user of Siri and Alexa since the moment they have been released. They both naturally have a clear anthropomorphism and personality. Clearly Siri has a more nuanced personality but Alexa most recently has been adding dimension to her personality.

In the case of Alexa, the start of the Voice First device revolution, we have the ultimate anthropomorphism. The Amazon Echo product is tied to a physical space in your home or in my case also in your car. The always-on, always-listening nature of Alexa encourages natural dialogs. In fact I have observed in my research that most people begin their dialogs with Voice First devices like they are hard of hearing and like they are from a foreign country. Once this is pointed out most people over time stop shouting and become surprisingly more natural with their dialogs.

When watching children interact with Alexa it becomes abundantly obvious how quickly they assign a clearly defined personality to the device. It is of course a projection but none the less it is present and a huge force.

Even in this video demonstration by Google we can observe that children have already developed an anthropomorphism to Google Home.

My experience and the 100s observations I have made using Voice First devices informs me that it is a mistake for Google to try consciously to remove the natural anthropomorphism from Google Home. It is also futile as we humans will anthropomorphize all Voice First devices. It will take place with or without the assistance of Google.

Indeed it may be said that Google is trying to reenforced branding by making users of Google Home say “Ok Google” many times per day. There is certainly some attributes to this branding however this will also contribute to the dilution of the trademark and tilt it to become a generic term. One can argue this has already happened with “I will Google that”. However from the perspective of the usability of the product humans will anthropomorphize ad-hoc and the end results my not be a desired result for Google.

Ok Goggle, Give It A Name

In 1989 when I began my Voice Manifesto I identified the importance of guiding natural anthropomorphism. Today we are at the start of the Voice First revolution and Google will become a material part of the future. It is abundantly clear that humans will not begin to stop assigning anthropomorphic personality traits to Voice First devices. In my view Google should accept this reality and craft a personality and assign— a name.

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[1] Anthropomorphism