‘Alexa, Why Do We Keep Buying You?’

When Amazon released Alexa in 2014, the company had big dreams for the technology. The voice assistant, the company suggested, could succeed smartphones as the next essential consumer interface.

Alexa, which was embedded in Amazon’s voice-activated Echo smart speakers, soon became one of the most popular voice assistants, alongside Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant.

But nearly a decade on, questions have arisen about the utility of voice assistants, including how often people use Alexa to shop for items or buy subscriptions. In November, Amazon began corporate layoffs, some of which targeted the division that makes Alexa and the Echo speakers.

An Amazon representative referred to comments its executives have made that the company is not giving up on Alexa and that it will continue developing new features for it.

We decided to ask readers how they use and interact with Alexa and how the technology fits into their lives. Nearly 200 people in the United States and Europe responded.

Those who relied on the voice assistant said they used it mainly for mundane tasks such as setting timers and checking the weather. Many said they had grown attached to Alexa and missed it when they were away. Most said they did not use Alexa to help them with shopping. Others told us, just as emphatically, that they would never use an Alexa device.

Here’s a selection of the responses in readers’ own words, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Credit…Jackie Ferrentino

A partner when living alone

Susan Jackson lives on Bainbridge Island, Wash. She has two Alexa-enabled devices.

I am 73, live alone, and I use Alexa every day to tell me the weather, turn on the lights, tell me the time in foreign countries so I can call people there, and for cooking. Lots of cooking problems solved by Alexa. She helps me cut down recipes; she patiently tells me how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon.

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I use it for some reading lights and ALWAYS for my Christmas tree. Nothing worse than crawling under your tree to turn it off and on.

If I met someone, he or she would have to fit into my life. They would have to love my house, my dogs, my Alexa, my drawing, my friends … or they can go to hell!

An arbiter during debates

David Webster lives in Cornwall, England, with his wife and their three children. He said they use their Alexa devices multiple times a day.

Many, many basic things we use it for. We would be lost without it.

It’s things like timers. I know that if the oven is on, there’s at least one Alexa timer going. If Janine, my wife, is cooking something, many of her recipes are from American cookbooks, and she will need to convert them to the metric system.

I could do it on the phone. But I’ve got wet hands, or my wife has flour on her hands. We’re opening the oven. I don’t want to touch another device — talking to it is so convenient.

If we are having a discussion around the dining room table, and she’s in the next room, just shout out “Alexa …”

Caring for a parent with dementia

Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her mother’s privacy. Elizabeth does not use Alexa in her own home, but she has two devices with screens in her mother’s apartment. She and her sister use the Alexa app on their phones to manage their mother’s devices remotely.

My mother has dementia, and Alexa allows us to keep her safe, to give her companionship, to make her days brighter with music — the list goes on and on. It is not an overstatement to say it is helping us keep her out of a nursing home.

We primarily use the app to make “Announcements”: These are phrases we type into the app that the machine then says aloud. We use this feature in the moment and also on a repeat schedule. The Echo device also shows the announcement text on the screen, so my mother can read it (a big help). Examples are little announcements about the weather and such that keep her company. The fact that a warm voice is in the room with her seems to give her a sense of companionship that the phone does not.

Using the app’s “Drop In” feature and our iPhone cameras, we can appear on one of her Echo devices (using additional Blink cameras, we can see which room she’s in) and initiate a call without her having to do anything on her end. We’ll use this if she’s left the phone off the hook or if we feel it’s necessary or helpful for her to see us.

We also use the “Routines” feature to control the lights in my mother’s apartment. According to her doctor, keeping her home well lit is important to managing her confusion and avoiding napping during the day. The routines feature helps us avoid having to make call after call to remind her of activities.

Alexa’s on staff

Maria Kinaman lives in Miami with her husband and two young daughters. They have six Alexa devices.

Alexa feels as if she’s on staff at this point. We overuse her for music, but also as a timer, for the weather, to play white noise, and we have synced it with our home security system and use it to lock and set the alarm for our doors. Not once have I made a purchase off it, though.

I have taken Alexa with me on vacations that are longer than two days.

A total immersion

Brendan T. Freeman lives in Burien, Wash., with his two dogs. He has 60 devices controlled by Alexa in his home, including lights, fans and heaters.

I wake every morning at 3:30 to drink coffee and read The New York Times. I walk into the kitchen and say the wake word — “shake” — which turns on and dims three fixtures (one in the kitchen so I can see, one in the living room and one in the bedroom). The coffee is freshly brewed, turned on by the Alexa app at 3:20.

While I lie in my bed with my laptop reading the news, the Alexa app turns on a Pandora light jazz station at 4 a.m. If I happen to oversleep, the music serves as my alarm clock.

When I first sit down in my office at 7 a.m., I look at my calendar and ask Echo to set alarms 10 minutes before any scheduled meetings I have. If there is something I need to remember to do during the day (buy dog food, call the doctor’s office), I’ll ask Alexa to set a reminder at a certain time.

When I go to bed, I say, “Echo bedtime,” and all the lights throughout the condo turn off.

Credit…Jackie Ferrentino

Checking on kids

Yiu Wai Chan lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 7. They own 13 Alexa-enabled devices and nine other smart devices.

We use it to turn on and off our living room lights and to drop in (talk from our phone to the Alexa Dot devices) from the car to check in on our kids sometimes.

We have no plans to shop with it, as we like to really research our purchases and see items in person or at least in videos or in pictures online before buying.

Clever life hacks

Michael Redmond lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del., with his husband. They have seven Alexa devices and three Google smart devices.

We have a Wyze camera trained on the sump pump in our crawl space, whose feed we display on an Alexa Show. It’s a pain to physically go into the basement to check the pump.

We don’t use it to shop on Amazon. It’s too hard to compare prices using the device.

We take an Alexa Dot with us when we travel.

Four devices in one Brooklyn apartment

Kerry Hoffman lives in Brooklyn with her husband and cat. They have four Alexa-enabled devices.

My husband set up automatic blinds that are controlled by Alexa. Not only can she open and close the blinds fully, she can adjust the shades up and down, too. We say, “Alexa, set living room blinds to 3 percent,” and she’ll open the shades so we can see outside.

Credit…Jackie Ferrentino

It’s too risky

Aaron Lawless lives in Springfield, Va., with his wife and two children.

In an era of massive hacks and data breaches, having an always-listening device connected to the internet sitting in my house is not worth the risk.

My wife is with me on not wanting an Alexa, but my 10-year-old has mentioned that it might be fun to have Alexa. He hears his friends talk about having Alexa, and he’s sold on the coolness of it. Mom and I are in agreement that it’s not happening, though.

And not even helpful

Heather Keever lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and 15-year-old son.

It is very important to keep Alexa, Echo, etc., devices out of our family. We’ve returned ones “gifted” to us; we don’t want them.

I tried my brother’s Alexa when we were visiting him to set an oven timer. It worked, but setting the actual timer on the oven worked just as well (maybe easier).

I’m not willing to give up my privacy for things I can easily do without.

My fingers work just fine

Richard Feury lives in Shelburne Falls, Mass., with his wife.

Don’t need one. Don’t want one. Wish they would go away.

I’m not so lazy that I want a machine to turn on the lights, lock the doors or switch from Hulu to Netflix for me. My legs and fingers still work just fine.

And I don’t want a device like Alexa to be used by corporations to learn more about my habits, lifestyle, political leanings, etc. I value what little privacy I still have, and Alexa erodes that.

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