Update June 23, 2015: Amazon Echo is now available to everyone (you no longer need to be invited). Get it here.
Have you met Alexa? She is the voice of Amazon Echo, new artificially-intelligent device that listens to you and answers your questions. And with the latest software upgrade, it (she?) has entered the home automation arena and can perform some tasks around the house.
If you are still trying to wrap your head around this, think of Echo as Apple’s Siri technology inside a black cylinder about nine inches high and three inches in diameter, with a blue-green LED circle around the top rim. Unlike Siri (designed to be mobile on Apple’s iPhone and iPad), Echo plugs into an electrical outlet, connects to your WiFi network, and sits on a table waiting for you to ask questions or give commands.
Inside, Echo is a load of high-tech goodness, including two speakers and an array of seven noise-cancelling, omni-directional microphones. The microphones use what Amazon calls “on-device keyword spotting” to detect the device’s wake word – Alexa. Saying “Alexa,” followed by a question or command (for instance, “Alexa, tell me the weather.”), activates Echo (indicated by the LED light ring) and transmits your spoken words to the cloud where Amazon’s Web Services technology recognizes and responds to your request.
You can ask Echo all types of general knowledge and current events questions, such as “Who is Abraham Lincoln?”, “Who won the Yankee’s game last night?”, and “How tall is Mt. Everest?” Echo responds instantly in a soothing, human-like voice (that is not at all creepy) with the information you requested.
So what does this cool new device have to do with knowledge management? It cannot store precedent documents, organize institutional knowledge, help onboard new employees, or do any other classic KM functions. The answer is not in what Echo does, but how it does it, and what it does to us. Here is what Echo taught me about KM.
User Experience is Even More Important Than I Thought
I’ve written and spoken about user experience (UX) before, and I have always believed that it is a crucial and fundamental aspect of the support of knowledge management initiatives and efforts. User experience gurus Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman define UX as “encompass[ing] all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with [a] company, its services, and its products.” UX is often confused with user interface (UI), which refers to “the space where interactions between humans and machines occur” – for most knowledge workers, typically on a computer or mobile device screen. UI is a component of–but not synonymous with–UX.
To get people to accept anything new – in KM or elsewhere – you must break down the barriers to adoption. Even if the new thing is amazing and will ultimately make users’ lives easier, better, and more enjoyable, users must get through the pain of change. Providing a quality UX can lessen that pain, and often, change it to pleasure and delight. This is important for knowledge management because we are constantly trying to get people to do things in better, more efficient ways. The problem is that KM professionals have not always focused on user experience when trying to make these changes.
The lesson from my experience with Amazon Echo is that people will change if the experience is delightful. I have experienced this previously (and repeatedly) with a whole range of Apple products, from my iMac to the iPhone and iPad (and probably soon, the Apple Watch). Think of the iPad, which early critics claimed would flop because the device solved a problem that nobody had. They were wrong. And, what makes the iPad so popular is the experience of using it. It is immersive and intuitive, convenient and connected. It is effortless in many ways. In a word, it is delightful.
The Amazon Echo is similar, and in some ways, represents the next level of that delightful experience. Setting up the Echo is a breeze. It looks elegant and almost luxurious, sounds amazing, and seems to work magically. When you interact with Echo you don’t think about technology or how to use it; you simply do something that comes naturally – you speak. The user interface is your voice.
Because of the delightful user experience, I adopted Echo for several aspects of my daily home life almost instantly. This video of how I now get ready for bed sums it up in about 25 seconds:
The Echo took an already convenient routine and made it more seamless by eliminating unnecessary steps. Years ago, I had to fumble with an alarm clock to ensure I got up on time. When I got an iPhone, I used its built-in alarm clock app and programmed it with a few swipes and taps. When the iPhone 4S came out with Siri, I pressed a button and asked it to set my alarm. Now, with Echo, the button is gone and I simply speak my command (as if talking to another person in the room): “Alexa, set an alarm for six a.m.”.
My lights are another good example of how Echo eliminates the unnecessary. In the old days, I had to get out of bed to flip my lightswitch. About two years ago, when I bought Philips Hue Connected Light Bulbs, I could control my lights with a few swipes and taps on on the Hue iPhone app. But with Echo’s recently added integration with the Hue light system, my hands-free command, “Alexa, turn off the lights” does the trick.
These are just a couple of pretty cool examples of elevated user experience. The more you use a device like Echo, the more uses you find for it (and the more you value the experience). For example, I no longer check the weather forecast on TV, my iPhone, or my iMac. I simply say, “Alexa, weather.” I no longer flip on the radio for my national news fix. I just say, “Alexa, what’s up?” and I get an audio “flash briefing” from NPR. I no longer use my iPhone to play a streaming radio station. I just say, “Alexa, play Tom Petty radio on Pandora” (the audio quality is surprisingly good). I have even stopped squinting my eyes to see the clock, and now simply say, “Alexa time.” The list goes on.
So, how does this apply to KM and what can we as knowledge management professionals do to harness the benefits of good UX? I don’t suspect that we will soon have Echo devices in our offices answering legal questions; but then again, maybe we will. A start-up company called ROSS is using IBM Watson technology to tackle legal research and it even has voice recognition that allows users to speak their queries. Maybe Amazon will partner with ROSS and make that a reality. More importantly, we can learn to acknowledge the importance of designing a superior user experience in our KM efforts. Remove the barriers to adopting KM tools and technologies. Figure out how to eliminate the unnecessary steps to connect our lawyers with the people and collective knowledge they need to do their work and serve their clients. (Can you design an Intranet that makes critical information available in one mouse click rather than three or four?) Design consumer-grade client-facing applications so that clients are delighted, rather than frustrated, when accessing your firm’s content. Develop clear, meaningful, and delightful programs and techniques to communicate KM to your lawyers.
In short, ask yourself: how you can replicate in your KM environment the seamless, delightful experiences that you enjoy with your favorite products and services.
On a related note, if you’re interested in the topic of user experience design in SharePoint, consider attending the ILTA SharePoint Symposium in Baltimore Maryland on June 9-10, 2015, where I will moderate a panel called, “Focus on the User Experience.”