Amazon’s announcement of Alexa for Business today has targeted the conference room (or maybe the lab), but I think that obscures the broader trend toward natural language interfaces (NLI). In an NLI a user communicates with a system using their own language instead of having to learn the system’s menus and commands.
Microsoft Office has gone about as far as a set of menu options and hotkeys can take us. Each new features has to fight for space on a menu somewhere and often gets lost. Just being able to say “select all the visible cells and not the filtered ones” would have saved me a lot of time (the answer is “Alt+;” for those interested).
A lot of innovation could come from designing productivity systems as natural language-first rather than using NLP as a bolt-on that presses menu buttons and fills in fields for you. Amazon has no legacy that would anchor them to old menu-driven UIs and soloed innovation of hardware and software. Combine that with a burgeoning set of assets, like Polly and Lex, and there’s a real opportunity to stake a new direction in how general purpose information workers get their work done.
The potential improvements in telemetry are particularly exciting. UI designers have been able to use telemetry information (the data about how you use a system that is sent when you opt to “send anonymous usage information back to the design team to improve the product”) to greatly improve menuing systems, particularly by prioritizing functions or renaming them.
That’s all useful, but when a system can’t do what the user wants or fails to find the menu item, the telemetry has a devil of a time figuring that out. With a NLI, the user spells out what they’re trying to do whether the system can do it or not, revealing a gold mine of customer-driven improvement suggestions without the guesswork.
The only place I have a quibble is with the focus on AI or voice being the sole leader of this charge. If we can get instructions like “create another one of our two column newsletters and paste the NewProd release in there” or “send an email with the end of year rankings to all the account managers” to work, that’s amazing whether it’s AI vs automation and whether I spoke it or typed it to an assistant bot.
For more on the conference room implications, see my post “Alexa for Business: “Alexa, Kick Everyone From the Previous Meeting Out of my Conference Room”“.
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