Digital Assistants are Changing the Way We Search

Someday soon, the arduous task of starting a computer, logging in and launching a browser may become the modern version of walking 10 miles to school, uphill, both ways. A hyperbolic gripe older generations use to lament how much harder they had it and how much more character they have now because of their tribulations.

“It was a simpler time,” they’ll say; “perhaps, even, a better time.”

It’s a concept as ridiculous as living both up- and down-hill from a school. Technology improves our lives every day by increasing efficiency and freeing up time for us to get more accomplished. It doesn’t make us lazy, it makes us more efficient.

Over the past decade, smartphones have showcased this tech-enabled productivity. Think of everything we use our phones for that doesn’t involve calls or texts – email, navigation, all sorts of functionality through connected apps and, most pertinent to the topic of this post, conducting searches.

There’s been much ado about this shift to mobile, especially in digital marketing where industry professionals have coined terms  like “mobilegeddon” and “mopocalypse.” Now, a mere decade after Apple kicked off the mass adoption of smartphones by introducing the iPhone, the next major shift may already be upon us.

The Rise of Digital Assistants

Digital assistants are software programs that can carry out a variety of everyday tasks. You probably know them better by names like Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and the aptly named Assistant (Google).

While digital assistants have a long way to go to reach the popularity of smartphones, adoption is on the rise. According to Tractica, the number of digital assistant users will more than quadruple between 2015 and 2021.

Major tech companies are putting serious time and money into digital assistants. Yesterday, Amazon announced that Alexa, which was mainly found on proprietary devices like the Echo and Fire TV Stick, will now be available on iOS devices. The added functionality overlaps what iOS devices can already handle, often better than Alexa can, like conducting searches, checking the weather and getting traffic information. But enabling Alexa does allow users to take the functionality of Alexa’s smart home services with them wherever they go.

Google has also been hard at work improving their digital assistant. After launching the software last May, Google has made the digital helper available on a number of devices, including:

  • Eligible Marshmallow and Nougat phones with Google Play Services
  • Google Home – Google’s version of Amazon’s Echo (basically, Assistant is to Home as Alexa is to Echo)
  • Android Wear devices

Using a Digital Assistant

We communicate with digital assistants differently than most technology. Most noticeably, digital assistants literally talk back to us, which is unique from traditional search engines. Each interaction is part of an ongoing relationship. Digital assistants store interactions and learn from them. Over time, they get to know us better and are able to deliver higher-quality results.

This dynamic has created the potential for more familiar and anthropomorphized relationships with digital assistants. This is not necessarily a good thing – critics have pointed out the negative impact this has had on kids’ manners and the societal implications of having digital assistants with predominantly female voices. (There’s also the obvious privacy issues surrounding a personal assistant that is able to record and analyze everything you tell it.)

The actual user experience of digital assistants is also unique and can change quite a bit depending on what device is used to access the assistant. If you use Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri on your smartphone, the search results display similar to traditional mobile searches. However, if the search is conducted on a stand-alone device like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home, the experience is very different.

Let’s take the Echo, for example. When I conduct a search for “the best restaurants near me,” Alexa responds with the names of nearby restaurants, but no additional location details like the information you’d get in a standard search result (Alexa does offer more detailed results if you pull up the app on your phone, though).

This experience isn’t ideal. Alexa, when accessed through Echo, is great at helping their users with personal tasks – setting alarms, converting metric measurements, reordering common products from Amazon, etc. Alexa does struggle with these “I-want-to-go” micro-moment type searches… for now.

Each digital assistant has tasks they excel at, and tasks they don’t. And that’s OK, because given how popular this technology is, it looks like they’ll be around long enough to get it right.