‘Alexa, why do we keep buying from you?’
When Amazon launched Alexa in 2014, the company had big dreams for the technology. The voice assistant, the company suggested, could succeed smartphones as the next essential customer interface.
Alexa, which was built into Amazon’s voice-activated Echo smart speakers, has quickly become one of the most popular voice assistants, alongside Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant.
But nearly a decade later, questions have arisen about the usefulness of voice assistants, including how often people use Alexa to shop for items or purchase subscriptions. In November, Amazon began laying off companies, some of which targeted the division that makes Alexa and Echo speakers.
An Amazon representative referenced comments from its executives that the company is not abandoning Alexa and will continue to develop 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 mainly use it for mundane tasks such as setting timers and checking the weather. Many said they grew attached to Alexa and missed it when they were away. Most said they don’t use Alexa to help them shop. Others told us, just as emphatically, that they would never use an Alexa device.
Here is a selection of responses in readers’ own words, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
A partner when living alone
Susan Jackson lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington. She has two Alexa-enabled devices.
I’m 73, I 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 to cook. Lots of cooking problems solved by Alexa. She helps me reduce the receipts; she patiently tells me how many teaspoons there are in a tablespoon.
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I use it for some reading lamps 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 should fit into my life. They would have to like my house, my dogs, my Alexa, my drawing, my friends… or they can go to hell!
A referee during the debates
David Webster lives in Cornwall, England, with his wife and three children. He said they use their Alexa devices several times a day.
Many, many basic things we use it for. We would be lost without it.
These are things like timers. I know that if the oven is on, there is at least one Alexa timer running. If Janine, my wife, cooks anything, many of her recipes are taken from American cookbooks and she will have to convert them to the metric system.
I could do it over the phone. But my hands are wet, or my wife has flour on her hands. We open the oven. I don’t want to touch another device — talking to it is so convenient.
If we’re having a discussion around the dining room table and she’s in the next room, just yell “Alexa…”
Caring for a relative with dementia
Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her mother’s privacy. Elizabeth doesn’t 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 remotely manage their mother’s devices.
My mom has dementia, and Alexa lets us protect her, give her companionship, brighten her days with music – the list goes on. It’s no exaggeration to say that it helps us keep her out of a nursing home.
We mainly use the app to make “announcements”: these are phrases we type into the app which the machine then says out loud. We use this feature in the moment and also on a snooze schedule. The Echo device also displays the ad text on the screen, so my mom can read it (a big help). Examples are small ads about the weather and the like that keep it company. Having a warm voice in the room with her seems to give her a sense of companionship that the phone doesn’t have.
Using the app’s “Drop In” feature and our iPhone cameras, we can pop into 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 side. We will use it if she has left the phone off the hook or if we feel it is necessary or useful for her to see us.
We also use the “Routines” function to control the lights in my mother’s apartment. According to her doctor, keeping her house well lit is important to manage her confusion and avoid napping during the day. The Routines feature helps us avoid having to call after call to remind him of activities.
Alexa is on staff
Maria Kinaman lives in Miami with her husband and two young daughters. They have six Alexa devices.
Alexa feels like staff at this point. We use it for music too, but also as a timer, for the weather, to play white noise, and we’ve synced it to our home security system and use it to lock and set the alarm on our doors . Not once did I make a purchase on it, though.
I took Alexa with me on a vacation that lasted more than two days.
A total immersion
Brendan T. Freeman lives in Burien, Washington with his two dogs. He has 60 Alexa-controlled devices in his home, including lights, fans and heaters.
I wake up 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 light fixtures (one in the kitchen so I can see, one in the living room, and one in the bedroom). Coffee is freshly brewed, activated by the Alexa app at 3:20.
While I’m lying in 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 meeting I have. If there’s 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 for a certain time.
When I go to bed, I say “Echo bedtime” and all the lights in the apartment go out.
Yiu Wai Chan lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 7. They have 13 Alexa-enabled devices and nine other smart devices.
We use it to turn the lights on and off in our living room and to drop by (talking from our phone to the Alexa Dot devices) from the car to occasionally check on our kids.
We don’t plan on shopping with it as we really like to research our purchases and see items in person or at least in online videos or pictures before buying.
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, the feed of which we display on an Alexa Show. It’s painful to physically go to the basement to check the pump.
We do not use it to make purchases on Amazon. It is too difficult to compare prices using the device.
We take an Alexa Dot with us when we travel.
Four devices in a Brooklyn apartment
Kerry Hoffman lives in Brooklyn with her husband and cat. They have four Alexa-enabled devices.
My husband installed automatic blinds controlled by Alexa. Not only can she fully open and close the blinds, but she can also adjust the blinds up and down. We say, “Alexa, set the living room shades to 3%,” and it will open the shades so we can see outside.
It’s too risky
Aaron Lawless lives in Springfield, Virginia with his wife and two children.
In an age of massive hacks and data breaches, having an always-listening device connected to the Internet sitting in my house isn’t worth the risk.
My wife is with me for not wanting Alexa, but my 10 year old son mentioned that having Alexa could be fun. He hears his friends talking about having Alexa, and he’s convinced of it. Mom and I both agree that doesn’t happen.
And not even useful
Heather Keever lives in suburban Chicago with her husband and 15-year-old son.
It is very important to keep Alexa, Echo, etc. devices. out of our family. We turned the “gifted” ones back to us; we don’t want them.
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 don’t want to give up my privacy for things I can easily do without.
My fingers are working fine
Richard Feury lives in Shelburne Falls, Mass., with his wife.
Don’t need it. I do not want it. Glad they 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 are still working great.
And I don’t want a device like Alexa to be used by companies to learn about my habits, my lifestyle, my political leanings, etc. I appreciate what little privacy I have left, and Alexa erodes it.