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Voice Will Fundamentally Change How We Interact with Technology, Says Amazon’s Chief Evangelist for Echo

If you read last month’s column, you know I give high marks to devices like Amazon Echo. Apparently, I’m not alone. According to a recent NPR/Edison Research study of smart speaker owners, 42 percent of people surveyed say it has become essential to their everyday lives and 65 percent say they wouldn’t go back to life without them. And of all the folks who took this survey, 76 percent own the Amazon Echo.

I bought my first Amazon Echo almost three years ago and have been fascinated by how it can do so many things by only asking Alexa — the digital assistant powering the Echo. So, I was more than excited to speak with David Isbitski, Amazon’s chief evangelist for Alexa and Echo, to hear more about how the device came about, and how the Echo/Alexa combo is impacting customer behaviors and expectations.

How did the Echo come about?

David Isbitski: The idea behind it was always a Star Trek computer and the ability to use your voice to actually have a conversation with your device. I think for me, and for a lot of people, when you realize you’re having a conversation — and it’s not a technology that’s translating your voice into some kind of text and then processing it — that’s what the difference is. You can speak naturally, spontaneously.

I talk to customers and they say they don’t even remember how they do things. You just walk up and you kind of do it, and that’s how we have conversations with people. I don’t remember how I asked my kids last night to get to bed and make sure they were ready the next day; I just did, and so that was the important change.

How has the relationship between Amazon and its customers changed as more customers start using Echos and calling on Alexa to do things?

Isbitski: I don’t know if it’s how you would define change. I think that what’s really changed is that there’s not a lot new things that a customer couldn’t do already through the website or a mobile app, what’s changed is how they do it.

I had no idea that the stuff that was coming to my house from Amazon was because my wife had just asked Alexa to re-order it, until I saw it happen one day. I heard her say, “Alexa, re-order cat litter,” and I was like, “Wait, what are you doing, how long have you … ” And she was like, “I’ve been doing that forever.” And then of course I start grilling her, “How did you find out about this?” She was like, “I don’t know, I just asked her.”

That’s a new customer expectation now that wasn’t there before. Suddenly, if Alexa knows me, and I’m doing things with Alexa, I’m just going to ask and see if she can do it. So, that relationship has changed.

Were you getting the sense that customers were wanting this kind of device?

Isbitski: It wasn’t so much about a device. The Echo uses Alexa, and the Echo was a way that we built the hardware, but for us it really was about voice. We have an Alexa Fund, which is a $100 million-fund to fuel innovation within voice. We believe that voice will fundamentally change the way that we interact with technology.

If you start with the customer and you work backwards, the best thing you can do for a customer, and this is true on the website and in our mobile apps, is to make it as easy and as direct as possible.

That is a good explanation for why folks like me love Alexa and Echo.

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