The secret behind Alexa’s success

An interesting thing happened in my home last year. I observed a product accomplish something powerful and the experience piqued my curiosity to understand the nature of what I had witnessed. The product I observed was the Amazon Echo, the connected speaker/microphone that features Alexa, Amazon’s voice-based digital assistant.

Here’s what happened…

I installed our first Echo device in early 2016. My primary reason for getting an Echo was curiosity. My wife and I aren’t that interested in the typical home automation scenarios people typically associate with the Echo, but I was curious to try out the new digital assistant anyway to see what it might be able to do for us. I placed the device in a central location in our kitchen and connected it (via IFTTT) to our family Trello board where my wife, Mardee, and I manage our Shopping List and To Dos.

Like many others with whom I’ve spoken, Mardee was not originally a fan of the Echo. In fact, she was very much opposed to our having it. She felt that the very idea of a microphone in our home actively listening to every word we say and everything we do was “creepy.” While that may not be a technically accurate description of how the Echo works, it is the initial perception almost everyone has about the Echo. And it’s also a very reasonable concern for an always-on, voice-enabled product like this.

I acknowledged the awkwardness, and asked her to let me give it a try for a little while. If we didn’t like it or didn’t use it, we would get rid of it. She reluctantly agreed, and the Echo took its place on the counter in our kitchen.

Now this is where the story gets interesting. Six months go by. I arrived home from work one day and Mardee tells me — in a somewhat excited voice — that Amazon was running a sale and that she just purchased a 6-pack of Echo Dots “so we can have Alexa in every room now.”

“Wait a sec. Time out”, I said. “How did you go from ‘this thing is creepy’ to ‘I want one in every room’ in just six months?!?”

She explained that she had gotten used to using Alexa every day to add items to our To Do and Shopping lists. “It’s so much easier to add things by just speaking it out loud. But the problem is that if I’m upstairs and think of a few items I need to add to one of our lists, by the time I’m able to get downstairs to the kitchen to tell Alexa, I’ve forgotten some of them.”

“What about adding them using the Trello app on your phone like we always do?”, I asked.

“That’s too much trouble now and I usually have my hands full with something else anyway, so the phone just isn’t convenient.”

Today, we have eight Echo devices in our home and Alexa is accessible nearly everywhere — including in our detached garage. Alexa has become a regular presence in our daily routines. We use Alexa a dozen or more times per day and we have upgraded our Prime status to take advantage of Prime Music. To put it another way, Amazon.com effectively OWNS our home now.

So how did this happen? The exchange with Mardee inspired me to take a closer look at the journey we took with the Echo, and to explore others’ experiences as well, to understand the factors that contributed to Amazon’s now dominant presence in our home.

After reflecting on our experience, and interviewing several other Echo owners, I’ve concluded that the success of Amazon Echo / Alexa in our home can be attributed to three things (in order of increasing importance):

  1. a first-mover advantage,
  2. a presence in the “hub” of our home (i.e. the kitchen), and
  3. the ability to effortlessly complete tasks we engaged in multiple times per day.

The first factor is the least important of the three, but it is worth mentioning because, as early adopters of Alexa will attest, when the Echo first came out, it wasn’t perfect. Being the only solution available at the time for the home meant that Amazon had time to learn and improve the Echo/Alexa experience without the threat of users abandoning the product to a competing alternative.

The second factor, a presence in the hub of our home, is an important one. We could have placed the Echo in any room of the house. By placing the Echo in the kitchen, Alexa was at the epicenter of where planning and interactions occur in our home. This gave Alexa the opportunity to address use cases that are central to our daily routine (i.e. assemble our To Do and Shopping Lists).

In our case, the kitchen is the last room I’m in before leaving for work in the morning and it is the first room I enter when arriving home in the evening. The kitchen is where we assemble our grocery list and talk about what we need to get done in the coming weekend. It’s where we feed our two dogs, where we make our coffee in the morning, and where I realize that we are out of my favorite condiment (perish the thought!).

I’ve spoken with other Echo owners who placed the Echo in “non-hub” areas of their home like the living room or the bedroom. In most of those cases, Alexa was used less frequently and usually just for very specific tasks like turning on/off specific lights or playing music. As a result, Alexa hasn’t established the same presence in those households as it has in our home.

The fact that we — like many others I spoke with — placed the Echo in a central location in our home is significant and it opens the potential for the most important factor contributing to Alexa’s success: engaging users multiple times per day.

Friends and colleagues of mine know that I am a disciple of Nir Eyal’s methodology on how to build habit forming products. As Nir explains in his book, psychology and neuroscience have shown that forming a habit involves repetition of a behavior. Repeat a rewarding behavior enough times with enough frequency, and a habit forms.* The products most successful at forming user habits are the ones that minimize the friction involved in their use.

The HOOK Canvas courtesy of Nir Eyal (NirandFar.com)

As Mardee’s experience demonstrates, providing a low-friction user experience is an area where Echo really shines. Compare the number of steps it takes to add an item to our To Do list using the Trello app (or even a lock screen widget) versus leveraging Alexa via the Echo.

Trello App (iOS):

  1. Think of item to add to list
  2. Locate my phone
  3. Unlock my phone
  4. Locate and open Trello app
  5. Navigate to the appropriate board
  6. Navigate to the appropriate list
  7. Tap “Add card” at the bottom of the list
  8. Type the name of the item to add
  9. Tap “Done” to save the entry

Echo / Alexa:

  1. Think of item to add to list
  2. Be anywhere near an Alexa-enabled device.
  3. Speak the words, “Alexa, add ________ to our To Do list.”

Not only does the Echo enable us to accomplish this task in six fewer steps than a traditional app, it also doesn’t require us to use our hands to do it! And by leveraging IFTTT to connect Alexa and Trello, we can continue to use Trello, a service we know and love, to manage our household lists. Given the choice, why would we use anything else?

When you consider the frequency with which we edit our To Do and Shopping Lists and the ease with which the Echo enables us to do that, you can imagine how a habit might quickly form around using Alexa for just these two use cases.

By creating a solution that is fast and easy-to-use to accomplish common, everyday needs Amazon has managed to generate love for a product from users that once considered it “creepy.” This is an incredible accomplishment and one that gives Amazon an advantage at becoming the go-to digital assistant in our home and I suspect the homes of many others.

Of course, it is still very early in the development of digital assistants and way too early to call Alexa the winner even in the home. There is still a lot of capability and value to add to the digital assistant experience and we can expect the usual suspects (Google, Microsoft, Apple) to be extending the capabilities of their products to differentiate in this space.

Nevertheless, Amazon has been remarkable in carving out an early lead in the home and, most importantly, influencing behavior for many of the people that already use its product. New entrants into that target market are clearly in for an uphill battle.


*As Nir also explains, another aspect that reinforces development of a habit is that the behavior should result in a reward for the user. Ideally, that reward should be variable. For the sake of space, I’ve chosen not to go into the details of how Alexa accomplishes these things, but suffice it to say that interacting with Alexa does have components of both of rewards and variability.