Wednesday, October 21

Amazon Alexa leader: COVID-19 has sparked ‘a huge increase in the use of voice in the home’

Tom Taylor, senior vice president for Amazon Alexa, speaks at the Alexa Accelerator Demo Day in 2018. (GeekWire Photo)

The COVID-19 crisis is speeding up the adoption of various technologies as people work remotely and spend more time at home. Voice tech is certainly among that group, according to a top executive on Amazon’s Alexa team.

GeekWire spoke with Tom Taylor, senior vice president of the Amazon Alexa unit, to learn more about recent Alexa-related trends amid the pandemic and what it means for the future of voice technology development.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the use of voice in the home,” Taylor said.

For example, customers asked Alexa more cooking-related questions during a week in April than during Thanksgiving week last year. Music listening through Alexa devices is up compared to last year. Skills usage is up 65% worldwide over the past two months, and Alexa voice search with Amazon’s Fire TV platform is also increasing.

Alexa is fielding plenty of coronavirus-related queries as well. Amazon quickly worked to fill the Alexa database with information from sources such as the CDC.

Other app developers have also built their own related services. Last month the Mayo Clinic rolled out a skill that provides information about COVID-19 and takes users through a set of yes-or-no questions to determine whether they need a coronavirus test.

In many ways, Alexa acts as a search engine but without the need for an extra device. There’s also a more personal element to the voice interactions, Taylor said.

“People do build relationships with Alexa,” he said. “We have something like one million marriage proposals and compliments of love to Alexa. I don’t think anybody has ever done that to a keyboard.”

A nurse at the Northwell Hospital in New York uses an Echo Show device to talk with patients. (Amazon Photo)

Given the hands-free nature of Alexa, the voice tech is also being used inside hospitals as a communication tool. Northwell Hospital in New York added 4,000 Echo Show devices to allow staff to speak with COVID-19 patients in isolation.

The rise in voice tech usage means more opportunities for voice app developers. Amazon has tried to appeal to app makers over the years, opening up the digital brain to third-party developers and creating no-code skill templates to encourage people to build their own voice-powered apps.

Taylor advised developers to not merely replicate existing phone or PC app experiences.

“This isn’t just about taking a current app built for the phone and switching from tap to voice,” he said.

That shift isn’t always seamless. Amazon recently partnered with Zynga for a voice-enabled version of its popular Words With Friends game. The experience was a bit tedious and confusing compared to the phone app, based on GeekWire’s test.

There’s also the issue of monetization and whether customers are comfortable making purchases via voice apps. The Information reported last year that Amazon was exploring ways to make more money off Alexa through premium content and other services.

Amazon is battling Google and others in the voice services industry. According to Voicebot Research, Amazon’s share of the smart-speaker market has declined from 61% in 2019 to 53% as of this January, with Google’s second-place share rising to 30.9%. Facebook’s Portal device, which comes with Alexa built-in, has also seen growing usage.