May 22, 2024


Picture this: It’s evening and, after a long day at the office, you’re finally home. You’re cutting some avocados as you prepare dinner when your voice assistant pipes up and reads you an important email that just came in. Without breaking your chopping stride, you dictate a reply—perfecting your guacamole while preserving your relationship with your boss.

This might sound like heaven to you—or, just as likely, hell. Either way, it’s about to be our reality.

When Amazon introduced Alexa, the tech industry quickly anointed voice as the next big thing. Sure, she was mostly reciting the weather and answering lewd questions from nine-year-old boys, but the future held much more. The rise of voice devices will rewrite the digital playbook in unpredictable ways—including how, when, and whether we have the ability to say, “Enough!” In a time when digital detoxing, unplugging, and disconnecting are widely discussed and even yearned for, voice could turn into the platform you can’t turn off.

As we currently experience them, voice assistants are passive devices. We call their names when we have a question, want to hear some music, or need to set a timer. Otherwise, they sit idle. Having Alexa operate the light switch for you, for example, isn’t a source of psychological stress. But it’s when these assistants begin actively demanding our time and attention that, some experts say, we’ll have a problem on our hands.

The danger in voice assistants arises when they begin drawing us in, interrupting our train of thought and therefore becoming something we have to manage, according to Terri Kurtzberg, an associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers who coauthored the book Distracted: Staying Connected Without Losing Focus. Once our devices turn that corner, “we’re going to be on much more risky ground with respect to how livable those things are in the long term,” she says.

That looks to be just where we’re headed. In May 2017, Amazon announced that opt-in notifications—a blinking light and a chime to indicate the presence of new information, prompting the user to ask Alexa what’s up—are on their way. They’ll soon be available for some “skills” (capabilities that third-party developers can add to the assistant), “giving Alexa the capability to alert customers with information that’s important to them.” Google announced in that same week that it, too, will be adding a notifications feature to the Google Home system.

These features have not been fully rolled out yet. The push notifications will be limited to certain skills, they’ll be opt-in only, and the “do not disturb” feature will remain intact. Designers with whom I spoke say that’s because platforms like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are still trying to nail down exactly how notifications will work—and because they know how dreadfully they messed things up with notifications on phones.

“I think all designers are acutely aware of how bad those notifications have gotten on mobile, and don’t want to repeat those sins in this new output modality,” says Cheryl Platz, a designer at Microsoft and the former head of the design team working on notifications at Amazon. Amazon provided no comment for this story, beyond noting that so far notifications are only available for delivery day notifications.

“It’s a slippery slope, and trust is going to be even more important. And you don’t get too many chances at trust,” Platz says. “So if an app does become obtrusive—if you’re having a quiet family dinner and you’re getting a notification that’s basically an ad—I don’t think you get another chance to get that trust back. Customers will probably find a way to disengage with your brand.”

Just as Apple once grappled with the question of whether to give outside parties access to its App Store, voice platforms are now weighing how much autonomy to grant third-party skill designers, for fear that over-notifying will turn consumers away from the product altogether.

“I think that’s where the platform players have to enforce the behavior and the rules,” says Roman Kalantari, creative technology lead in the New York offices of Fjord, a design consultancy. “We know that app developers will push the boundaries constantly. That’s why you see Amazon and Google taking such a heavy-handed approach.” He adds: “There’s this drive to get user engagement at all costs.”

One skill particularly eager for the ability to actively notify users is Trove, a service that prioritizes your email. Currently, Trove users have to ask Alexa or Cortana what’s new in their inbox before being told that they have important messages awaiting a reply. But according to Trove CEO Guy Suter, his team is currently working with Amazon to get access to the notifications feature so that, when a critical email arrives in your inbox, your assistant will wake up and let you know.

“We’re going to be extremely conscientious about how and when we do that,” says Suter. “[Speaking] as an avid Alexa user, not a CEO of a startup, I certainly want to be very careful about when the Alexas around my house start just saying stuff.”

How much freedom outside developers are given in designing the notification capabilities of their skills remains to be seen, as does the amount of restraint they will show. A respectful approach, like the one Trove promises, could let voice evolve in a way that weans us off our smartphone dependence. Trusting that our assistants will alert us to anything really important, we might be more willing to stop incessantly refreshing our inboxes and set our phones aside (at least some of the time).

But history—and the number of non-pressing CNN news notifications currently on my lock screen—suggests we should be skeptical. There’s too much money to be made once smart home technologies become the primary means for companies to access consumers.

“Every one of these companies has a choice to make,” says Platz. “Apple and Google and Amazon—anyone who’s making one of these assistants—has to decide: Do we let third parties control how these notifications interrupt you? Or do you restrict it to protect the customer’s experience, but with the cost of limiting the potential for all those companies?”

The arrival of voice technology in the smart home is likely to force a reckoning in our digital lives. Maybe our assistants will allow us to comfortably distance ourselves from our devices without fear of missing something important. Just as likely, they will continue to keep us tuned in and turned on at all times, worsening the epidemic of elevated cortisol and stress levels that psychologists have been diagnosing since the introduction of the smartphone. Ultimately, Silicon Valley will only determine how much our assistants are capable of doing. It will be up to us to determine what we actually allow them to do—and whether the age of Alexa ends up cementing or taming our self-destructive technology habits.

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