What Makes Us Love Alexa?

Smart devices with voice assistants have become wildly popular in recent months, with each tech giant rolling out its own version of the technology. Some companies — think Amazon, with its Echo speaker and Alexa agent — are making devices that can be used in social or family situations. We now call our devices by human names and they speak back in human voices. What does this mean for how we interact with our technology? And will it tell us something new about how we try to make non-human devices more human?

There’s a lot of research that suggests that the ways we interact with our devices — computers, phones, and the like — are surprisingly similar to the ways we interact with other people. This goes double for devices that speak in human-like voices. We tend to personify them — that is, ascribe human characteristics, wishes, or beliefs to them. We wanted to know how much people personify Alexa/Echo. Do they think of it as a device, or as a person?

There’s also a relationship between how much we like our devices and how good they are at doing their jobs. Technology researchers have found that when computers or robots give more effective answers to our questions, we like them better, and personify them more. We wanted to see if there was a relationship between how much people like their Alexa/Echo, how good it is at the things it’s supposed to do, and how much it’s personified.

To answer these questions we collected two weeks’ worth of Amazon.com reviews for the full-size Echo device. We marked down their star rating and made an estimate of the reviewer’s gender based on their username. We then went through each review, one by one, looking for clues that might tell us what people are thinking when they interact with the device.

  • Do people call the device “Alexa” or “Echo”? Do they use person pronouns (she/her) or object pronouns (it/this)?
  • What kind of role does Alexa/Echo play in their lives?
  • Do they use Alexa/Echo with other devices or services? Do they have it integrated into a smart home environment? Do they mention technical features like musical/speaker functions, its ability to hear questions, or its ability to answer questions accurately?
  • What kind of household does the user belong to? Do they live alone, or with a partner? Do they have kids? Do they mention being elderly or disabled?

587 reviews and a few statistical analyses later, we found some pretty interesting results.

First, we looked at whether people called their device Alexa or “her” vs. Echo or “it”. This helped us create a measure of personification, or how much we attribute human characteristics to non-human things like smart speakers. We found that while a majority of users call their device “Alexa”, they still used object pronouns (“it”). Only 19.5% seem to totally personify their device, using both “Alexa” and “her”, with nearly 30% of people using a combination of personified and non-personified names. This suggests that Alexa/Echo’s identity is still kind of murky — people aren’t really sure of their relationship to the device.

When it came to how people interacted with their Alexa/Echo. We looked at how “sociable” the roles were that Alexa/Echo plays in its users’ lives. Do they see it as just a tool that gives news and facts — something not very sociable — or does it play the role of another human , like a friend or family member? We found that most people used their Alexa for less-sociable purposes — reporting news, playing music, and the like. But some reported more sociable purposes, saying the device acted as a personal assistant, conversation partner, roommate, or friend. Users who called their device “Alexa” instead of “Echo” were even more likely to report that it played a social role in their lives.

Other factors influenced how much people personify their Alexa/Echo. If the reviewers reported using their device in a home with kids or other family members, they were more likely to use human names or pronouns. They were also more likely to use person pronouns if they liked their device more — that is, if they gave it a higher star rating in their review. People who thought that their device was better at doing its job (playing music, hearing questions, and giving answers) also gave it a higher star rating.

To put it simply, people who love “her”, love her.

One important thing to note is that we don’t know whether family use and pronoun choices influence star ratings, or the other way around. There could even be something going on here that our data didn’t capture. Our dataset was pretty limited — when reviewing their Alexa/Echo on Amazon, most people tend to stick to basics like “I really like it” or “it isn’t that great”. They’re not prompted to disclose anything about their lives or families which is the data that’s most useful to us. It’s possible that the people who do choose to mention more intimate information might use their device differently from people who keep those details to themselves.

In the future, we’d like to dig deeper into what makes people personify their smart home devices, especially the ones that speak. Are there personality differences at play? Does using the device as a family or social group matter? Does integrating it with other electronics or smart home devices make an impact? And finally, does personification change how people use their devices, or how satisfied they are with them?

As technology like Alexa/Echo, Google Home, and other smart and connected devices find a place in our homes, it’s important to know how they might change us. We’re only just beginning to find out what these new devices might mean for us, or families, and our lives.

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