PHOTO: “Mute Button” by Rob Albright, cropped and color-adjusted. Original image at https://flic.kr/p/C6Ae3S.

Please Stop Saying “Alexa”

I listen to a lot of audio programming. There’s almost always something on in my home, in my car, or in the office—news, podcasts, or music. And I have a bunch of Amazon Echo devices around my home, including in the kitchen and office, where I’m often listening to podcasts.

It amazes me how many times I hear podcasters, professional broadcast personalities, and advertisers trigger my digital assistant. “Just ask your Alexa to ….” “Say, ‘Hey, Siri, how do I …?’” Or “OK, Google, tell me how to ….” Sure enough, about half of the time one of my devices will perk up and respond with some note of confusion. Sometimes, though, the dutiful assistant attempts to honor the request, as in the numerous stories of consumers’ devices trying to order products from something they heard on the radio or TV. I find myself yelling “CANCEL” into the air a lot.

Alexa, how did we get here?

Let’s start with Alexa, because it’s most prevalent, and it demonstrates a number of problems.

First off, this is Amazon’s fault. They (inadvertently?) created a user experience problem by branding their digital voice assistant by its trigger phrase. Instead of requiring some interjection like “hey” or “OK” before its name, you just say, “Alexa, [blah blah blah].” Sure, they allow a few other trigger phrases like “Amazon,” “Echo,” and “computer,” but they are also likely common words in many households [although I have to admit I do love that they added “computer”].

Amazon compounds the problem by branding everything “Alexa.” Alexa Skills, the Alexa app, Alexa Voice Services, Alexa Calling & Messaging, and most recently Alexa Cast. You can’t live in or discuss this ecosystem without using the word “Alexa.” What were they thinking?

Then there’s another problem that just baffles me. You hear people saying things like, “my Alexa,” “ask your Alexa,” or “I got an Alexa.” NO! You didn’t get an Alexa. Nobody has an Alexa except, possibly Amazon. It’s an Echo.

♫ My assistant has another name, it’s A-L-E-X-A ♪

Many podcasters and broadcasters have come to realize that this is a problem and have devised work-arounds—some clever, some awkward.

Let’s start with my favorites: Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin C. Tofel on the IoT Podcast always refer to Alexa as “Madame A.” John Gruber and Merlin Mann seem to have coined referencing all digital assistants as “Dingus.” And NPR runs promos encouraging you to, “listen to your local station any time, like this: ‘hey, smart device…play NPR.’”

Other tactics include spelling her name, “A-L-E-X-A;” accentuating a break between syllables, like “Alec—sa;” tripping over wordy alternatives, like “she who shall not be named;” or simply bleeping the name in post-production.

Amazon has managed to work around the problem it created, purportedly with some audio trickery. Your Alexa-powered devices will now acknowledge—but not respond to—the spoken commands in Amazon Echo ads. To my knowledge, Amazon has not yet shared any specifics on this technique with other content producers.

OK, Google…what about the other assistants?

The problem isn’t as pronounced with the other assistants. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung all require you to utter the interjection “hey” before their assistants’ names to summon their services. Google Assistant also wakes up to the phrase, “OK, Google….”

Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet reports that Microsoft is changing this for Cortana, though, eliminating the need to precede Microsoft’s assistant’s name with “hey.” You’ll be able to invoke Cortana just by saying her name…the way Alexa works. Thanks, Microsoft. That’s not a good thing.

While talking about Google Assistant, Siri, and Bixby should be straightforward, we still encounter accidental triggers when referencing these other services. Usually it’s through ads [my Android tablet has occasionally responded to Google ads] or by people describing how to use these assistants.

HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore!

I produce audio content where I talk about these devices and services. My workaround? I refuse to say these trigger phrases in conversation or editorial content. I coach podcast guests and interviewees to avoid them. I’ll even interrupt and re-take, if necessary, to correct an accidental utterance. Sometimes I find myself hesitating to even write “Alexa.”

I’m constantly listening to people on the radio, on TV, and on podcasts trip over trying not to say “Alexa,” which often instigates at least one slip up. And I just don’t get it. Why is this so hard? Sometimes I hear people react negatively when they’ve just said “Siri” or “Google Home,” as if they’re worried they just triggered those assistants by saying their names. It doesn’t work that way. (What a mess.)

Sure…Amazon has, arguably, irresponsibly promoted the Alexa brand and trigger phrase to achieve popular awareness, but journalists and people who speak for a living (or perhaps as a hobby) should be able to handle this! Maybe this is a naive question, but don’t people think about and listen to what they’re saying?

Hey, Siri…define “discipline”

Ultimately, I’ve found the best way to solve this problem is avoidance and substitution. This requires a certain amount of awareness, discipline, and creativity.

The first step is recognizing that the thing is not Alexa. It’s an Echo, so I call it that. The rest is a little harder. Just like avoiding other awkward language, sometimes the best thing to do is to just phrase things differently.

Alexa is “Amazon’s assistant.” Third-party Alexa-powered devices offer “Amazon’s voice services.” That app that controls it all? It’s the app for Amazon’s assistant.

When describing how to use these things, there’s no need to include the trigger phrase. Instead of saying, “OK, Google…” or “Alexa, …” in your description, just say the rest of the command. Here are some examples of how you can describe using an assistant without triggering anyone’s devices:

Ask your Echo, “what’s the temperature outside?”
Use your Google Home to ask, “when is my next appointment?”
Tell your assistant to “turn on the TV.”
Say “ask Dominos to send me a Pizza.”
PHOTO: Kertojan ääni. Original image at https://flic.kr/p/291UTUw.

See? It’s not that hard. Folks behind the mic just need to think about what they’re saying (and…I don’t understand why that isn’t already happening).

Oh, and for the record…for those of you without assistants who still think it’s fun/ny to trigger other people’s devices: Grow up and gain some respect for your listeners.