Sunday, 11 February 2018

We need to talk about Alexa: Common use devices in a personal world

Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash
This week I'm going to reflect on a year and bit of using two voice assistants - Alexa and Siri. Although much the same would apply to Google Home. I must start by saying I love Alexa and the echo dot. She does just enough and is unobtrusive enough in my life that I'm not a slave to her ... in the same way as a smartphone.

Last month I wrote about one aspect that "we" have not looked into enough - privacy. 

“I think it will make for a perfect alarm clock”  Trusted Reviews - Amazon Echo Spot
Here it looks like part of the problem with technology is the uncritical approach of what could go wrong, in building and selling. There is no mention of privacy concerns apart from throw away comment about a "mute" feature. As well as the obvious issue of an internet connect camera in our bedrooms. I have been thinking about other issues related to a mindset used to personal in more common use areas. So I have done some digging into people's opinions of the challenges technologists need to solve.

What voice assistants give us

But before I start looking at that, here are some of the good things these products give us:

  • Timers when we have our hands full, great for cooking!
  • "Routines" on Alexa can be used to create really personal alarm clocks - surprised smartphones haven't had these for years
  • Control over music

This is what we are trading for the areas of concern below. With 15% feeling that nothing needed changing, and a further 9% wanting more access to these assistants on the move! Which could be done to where people are in their stage of life? And what they perceive that they have to lose. One of the qualitative responses that I received suggested this could be a factor:
"I'm at that age were I'm not particularly bothered. In fact, I'm probably boring them rigid with my timers, alarms and reminders." Mark on Ipsos i-Say


Two quotes that sum up the responses of the 41% people worried about privacy I got were:
"It’s a government listening device" Ben via Facebook
"... just like all the new 'smart' products like TVs, Meters, fridges etc they all made for spying on us 👎🏽😣" veganpanda on ipsos i-Say

How else is privacy affected in these areas? Well, since Alexa has added messaging anyone (including 6 year old nephews!) can get access to messages meant for specific people. This weekend I have noticed this when Alexa couldn't understand a command. She fell back onto checking the messages.

This is wild speculation, but I imagine the main use case used in tested against is adults. Either in a close relationship living together or single people home alone. 

The other thing to think about is that you don't always know Alexa is there - is she in that speaker? Or maybe that lamp? We are moving towards a connect world. Are you happy with the privacy considerations as they are?


To sum up the 35% of responders who voted for security:
"There are too many risks the devices can be hacked" - Marmum63 on ipsos i-Say

This is very like the above two cases. Most people I know disabled the voice ordering shopping option as soon as the devices are setup. Since the first thing most people do the first time they visit someone with an Echo is to order something bizarre.

The other aspect is that you are giving one, maybe two or more corporations access to you home. Constantly listening (and maybe watching). With very sensitive microphones connected to the internet - what could go wrong?

Lots of people - me included - find this technology really cool. And the companies that make them are in relatively liberal democracies where the rule of law is valued. But what if that isn't the case in the future? What about these devices being used in countries that already look to control the population with technology?

The family experience

One of the interesting quotes on its suitability came from Facebook:
"I wrote a skill called School Run to help make sure everything gets done. Was planning on entering a competition. But we tried it and it was a hideous experience for the whole family. I think voice tech has a place but maybe not in the home. " Neil (another one!) on Facebook
and another on the downside of giving digital assistants human personas
"We changed ours to respond to 'computer' because I didn't like the way it made it fell like having a servant called Alexa." Helen on Facebook

Another issue with the common use aspect, which I've experienced, are recommendations. They work brilliantly when you log into a website on a device that you control to use the way that you want. But if I use my wife's Echo connected to her Spotify to play songs that only I like. Then it starts to devalue those recommendations to her. Likewise with YouTube on the Firestick. I use it to watch music videos or travel industry related conference feeds. Yet because one of my nephews likes Peppa Pig I get many more recommendations based on that!


I remain cautiously optimistic about the promise of smart assistants and breaking free of screens and keyboards. But it is still very early days. It feels like we are in the era of PC voice dictation software. Or the early internet enabled phones that used Java apps and WAP pages. That's to say the current crop of voice assistants, which don't need training to understand you, and capabilities of native apps on smartphone now are an order of magnitude better. 

What it took to get here was to create new ways of thinking and working with products suited to these devices. Not to copy from the desktop paradigms and local processing. The voice processing for Alexa benefits from having vast amounts of data in the cloud. alongside a feedback mechanism from the users that makes my copy of Dragon Dictate in 2000 look like a toy.

We are still very much find our way as an industry in the privacy and ethical challenges that common use devices over personal ones provide. We need another leap in technology to detect who not only what is being said. If we solve these then we will have a brilliant benefit for easing the friction of using technology. For example, checking flight information in a natural way. 

Further Reading

A one question poll hosted on ipsos i-say. This surveyed UK adults in as close a random sample as I could get. I chose this over a Twitter poll due that more varied sample as my followers have a heavy industry bias - UX people, Product Managers, and developers. At time of writing this received 208 responses. The question posed was:

What worries you about voice assistants? (e.g. Alexa, Google Home, Siri, or Cortana)

With the description:
With everything seemingly getting voice assistants from lamps to speakers, what worries you the most about having all these devices listening and watching us in our homes?

With apologies to HBX's Professor Janice Hammond on the question design! I took a decision for an opinionated question based on my review of mainstream reviews of these devices. I hoped that this would lead to thinking more about the downsides. It had the following options as responses:

  1. Privacy
  2. Security
  3. Nothing, I'd even like to take it on the road!
  4. Nothing Happy with the way things work now
  5. (the ability to add another response)
For more qualitative replies I also posted on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter:

Anybody got some good stories about Alexa or Google home type voice assistants? Things you didn’t expect it to do? Ways children have confused it? Or it has affected recommendations from other services that you use? Worries about privacy?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second set of learning from the Bashfully MVP process

I was going to write about SEO and Bashfully, but is usual on software projects other things cropped up. In tandem with my day job I have mainly been thinking about maintaining delivery momentum.One of the downsides of small projects teams is the lack of capacity and time. However, the upside is focus and alignment. We manage this by:

  • Keeping a Small backlog, we're open to opportunity but don't fill a backlog for the sake of it. Each completed feature is usually an avenue to learn and build.
  • Referring to the vision and remembering YAGNI, there have been times that we have rejected ideas as they aren't core to what we are trying to achieve. And others that just aren't right yet (which we immediately discard, no clogging up the backlog!)
  • Talking before starting dev, really simple but not relying on story formats or mock-ups. We talk through what we are trying to achieve and what success looks like.
That's the good things that I have learned in this phase. The bad things come down to prioritisation and what we knew at the time. With hindsight I would have been tempted to tack on-boarding and tailoring profiles differently. But it is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. You need compelling features to get people to sign up, yet you need users to provide feedback.

After we had profile tailoring (what we are calling "lenses") I set up a limited Twitter campaign. This did increase the engagement and got us some potential users, but from the analytics I could see a drop off during the setup process. One of the factors behind not prioritising this earlier was that user research had shown wanting to do something with LinkedIn data (others were asked for, but LinkedIn was far and away the winner).

Worth bearing in mind that no matter how you ask it, people aren't going to give useful answers to setup questions. You just have to make it as easy as possible to get in. The approach we have taken now is to get the bare minimum and then allow a full profile to be built up at leisure. Also no matter how easy you think you've already made it, go one step further!

Which brings me onto the Tweet that wins this week...

Further reading

Friday, 2 February 2018

MEETUP: Developers: What do you expect from your Product Managers? at ProductTank Brighton

My week has been book-ended by Meetups! To finish off was the ProductTank Brighton session looking at what developers need from product people and how changes impact them.

Dorothy Wingrove kicked off the evening with a lightning talk on 'How to Build a World-Class Rock Paper Scissors Bot'. Dorothy went through the concepts needed to build a bot to play the well known game. As she showed the very simple code needed to execute each strategy - each on one slide - and going to meta-strategies she showed how very complex and adaptive behaviour can be built. This was the best illustration of the impact of "just one small change" I have seen. With each change having a knock on effect needing a further change. I'd recommend anyone responsible for managing the software development process who doesn't have a technical background to see this talk if you get the chance! (thanks to Craig for booking her in)

Next was the "main event" of the evening a panel discussion to find out what your development team most wants from you (if you are a product person). In the questioning and moderation chair was James Mayes, Co-Founder and CEO of Mind the Product.

The panel represented some successful development businesses in Brighton:

  • Eilidh Hendry - Full Stack Developer at TrustedHousesitters
  • Danielle Vautier - UX Developer at ProdPad
  • Martyn Osborne - Technical lead on the Product team at 15below
  • Daniel Pickford - Head of Development at 15gifts
As you may be able to tell from the job titles the panel had a diverse range of experience, and therefor opinions on what they wanted. Taking from the answers is was clear that a useful bit of feedback was to approach people as individuals and find out what works for them. I've had the pleasure of knowing both Dan and Martyn since they were at 15below as placement students. So seeing them on the panel talking about building successful products made me feel proud to know them.

I'm also a keen user of ProdPad and love the idea behind TrustedHousesitters, so hearing the developer side of the experience it was interesting to note how they work comes through in the end product and brand.

Another subject that got close to consensus was the need for a delivery cadence being more important that sprints or deadlines. Although the panel also agreed that no deadline at all risked gold plating things (i.e. letting perfect be the enemy of good). Given how closely I work with Martyn, I am glad that he has seen the benefit of how I have tried to organise our product work! (sometimes real life does interfere with plans though ;-))

A great night out, with interesting talks and nice pizza provided by evening's sponsor - American Express. Also love the venue 68 Middle Street.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

MEETUP: "Gutenberg and Security Talks" at WordUp Brighton

Last night I attended the first WordUp Brighton event of 2018. Tammie Lister talked about the new WordPress editor, Gutenberg, and Dave Potter gave a talk on security. This was outside of my usual bubble as I'm making more of an effort in 2018 to explore the local "tech scene" outside of day-to-day concerns.

Dave started off with a great look at "security". This wasn't the talk I was expecting from the title but brilliant. I had initially thought it would be about things like hacking, but it was more to do with the security of business processes. So important things like back-up and retention strategies, which introduced the hot topic of GDPR! How hosting impacts those. Also other things to look out for in hosting that can impact your business continuity, like what do hosts do when they see network spikes ... will they just take down your instance or a whole server?

Tammie then did an intro to a new WordPress editor from Project Gutenburg. This looks like it will greatly improve the editing experience and make it more like the end result. She then bravely did live demos! Including adding a WordPress plugin and then using the output saved "block" in a new post. Overall I was very impressed by the new experience, as I know how much of a pain WYSIWYG editors can be. I also thought that the little nudges for accessibility were a step in the right direction, for example warning when text contrast is below a certain level.

One thing that I was surprised about was that my previous experience using Zope and Plone earlier in my career. I have done lots of things since then, but the memories of  setting up content and structuring it came flooding back. After the talks a lot of the conversations that I eavesdropped used words like "Information architecture" and "taxonomy". But they also linked that to very real world concerns around how change impacts users, how to manage deprecation in contexts where changes are very infrequent. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

What I've been reading w/c 22/01/2018 Design and focus

This week has been about kicking off projects at work and a major release for my side project. Because of this my reading has probably gravitated towards thoughts of design, focus and leadership around both. 

Voice-Enabled Design is different enough to "point and click" that I think it will lead to some change of the profile of Product People. Interesting theory here that Drama Teachers will be the ideal people to lead the charge here. 

Drama teachers may be one specialism IT could do more of. Critical thinkers is another. For example 
“I think it will make for a perfect alarm clock”  Trusted Reviews - Amazon Echo Spot
Here it looks like part of the problem with technology is the largely uncritical approach of what could go wrong, in building and selling, no mention of privacy concerns apart from throw away comment about a "mute" feature.

Maybe they fell foul of the issue in this great quote from Davide Vitiello in his Focus vs Product Team Structures talk
“Finite resources” is an undeniable truth in business that product managers come across constantly  
which gives a solid business case for focus due to limited resources. But be careful not to fall into trap told by Havoc here on not focusing on the "user's problem" and not your solution in software development. Here he uses the example of The dangerous “UI team” to show how separation of concerns in an organisation can go wrong. Also what goes wrong with too much focus on how you solve the problem.

If you have user problems that cause large business impact but low volumes, it can be hard to see how changes are doing. In How increases the power of online experiments with CUPED Simon Jackson (Data Scientist at give a great explanation of how tackle experiments with low volumes (and also nice to see how R is being used!)  

Good advice for team building, collaboration, and leadership here from Camille Fournier to Stop Answering Your Own Questions in An episode of “Bad Management Habits” . 

Reading all this I am thinking that 2018 might be a year for me to brush up on my Critique skills. I took undergrad art history courses specifically for this but fear I’m getting rusty! According to Critique is vital to building an innovation culture. Even if it doesn't do that, it should help build things in a more deliberate way.

And finally I had my first run of 2018. A nice easy recovery run to learn to love it again. Which got me thinking. Software development has taken the concepts of "sprints" and "marathon pace" from running ... why not "rest days" or "recovery runs"? Both vitally important for high performance in running, and I suspect the same for any knowledge work

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

MEETUP: Ethical Technology London

Last night I had a fun time in that there London town, for a meetup organised by Cennydd Bowles. I had become aware of the event after reading his post A techie’s rough guide to GDPR. This was also a fairly rare trip to the Silicon Roundabout for me, and I was struck by how much it has changed recently.

It was a low key, informal event with no agenda. Just interested (and interesting!) people talking about ethics and technology. Among the people I talked to were Anne who is organising an Ethical track at QCon, Rachel who had a brilliant ice break around topics that we thought would help keep technology ethical. Mark's answer that the fast scaling was an issue was more convincing than mine that "transparency" would be the answer. To paraphrase, he said that companies like Uber, AirBnB, and Facebook had probably scaled much quicker than their corporate governance and leadership could scale. The ecosystems that develop around these companies also further diluted the ethical leadership.

That really resonated with me, as looking back over my career processing and data storage is much, much less thought about. It's just not something that we really have to think about for most applications. Compare that to the extreme data efficiency that lead to the millennium bug due to cutting two bytes!

Another really interesting find for me was Richard talking about a "Data sharing pattern catalogue" project at IF. It seemed like a really obvious thing when he mentioned it. Looking at the work they share I think it's brilliant, to help teams that may not be used to approaches for sharing data to give them pointers of good patterns to follow. And it's open to outside contributors, so has the potential to be a really useful living body of knowledge.

All-in-all a good night learning about what others are up to. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Tools to help your start-up in starting up

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash
Getting the correct tools in place for any initiative is important. For any product concentrating the core functionality is also key. Anything that isn't a core function should come off the shelf. Very few circumstances are that specialised to need to roll your own. 

The number one example of this for me are passwords. Not only do you not want to spend the time writing authentication code. You also won't want to spend the time doing so securely. Most people already have a Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, GitHub, or whatever log-in. Just use that. 

I have already shared about infrastructure that we chose for Bashfully. Had the project been different we may have made different choices. For example, Python and R have brilliant support for statistics and machine learning. Java is great support for build, CI and distributed system tooling. In this post I am going to take a look at a couple of feedback tools, as this is important wherever you are in the product life-cycle.

Survey feedback

One easy and popular way of creating surveys is Google Forms. I find this works best in closed networks to get quick feedback. It's a bit clunky to setup and shows limited data, for example average completion times. But it does have good integration with google docs, getting your results straight into a spreadsheet. Of the survey tools I have used, Typeform is my favourite. I found this to be better for sharing. I have also used the data about the people completing the survey, how long it took, and what kind of device was used. It has plenty of integrations through Zapier, as well as direct integrations with Mail Chimp and Google Docs.

Product feedback

Looking at more general feedback about your product, you want it to be as quick and simple as possible. I have been trialling the ProdPad customer feedback portal as it links to ideas on your road map and it is easy to combine with other sources of feedback. ProdPad again has lots of integrations through Zapier, as well as JIRA and Salesforce. This is a great tool that also allows you to expose ideas from the road-map and get feedback directly linked.

For something a bit more feature rich in analysing the feedback I have been looking at WIYM. This has a great dashboard, for fast feedback. The reason this is important as we still have a short road map in discovery mode. We don't have a clearly defined market and customer base, so we are still experimenting to meet our initial vision.

Road map feedback

We don't have a tool that shares this directly at the moment. But we use Headway for release notes, which then publishes to Twitter. I found out about this tool from seeing it used on another start-up's site. So remember, always keep an eye out for who provides functionality you like! They also have a simple road map tool in development, which could be interesting.

Example release note combining Headway and WIYM!


There are a lot of tools out there for exchanging information with your users. Most of them have a free plan if you are starting out. One thing I hadn't quite expected, for example with FullStory, was how Slack would become the nexus for many tools. Tag some interesting behaviour or bug occurring in FullStory, instantly share it. Get feedback from either of the tools we use, instantly ping in Slack. During my day job we use HipChat, which is similar on the surface, but doesn't have the same level of integration support or usability. Make use of trial periods and find the tools that work best for you. But don't get too bogged down, it helps if you see one that you like or read reviews on a site like ProductHunt or BetaList.

Other tools we use:

  • MailerLite - mail automation, including our welcome and on-boarding emails 
  • Zoho - incoming mail hosting, including mail lists 
  • Cloudflare - DNS and CDN 
  • UptimeRobot - monitors our site availability and provides our status page 
  • Trevor - read only tool for querying DB, see what skill tags are being added and build data sources for analysis in R 
  • MockFlow - great design tool, part of a really handy suite 

Further reading

We need to talk about Alexa: Common use devices in a personal world

Photo by  Andres Urena  on  Unsplash This week I'm going to reflect on a year and bit of using two voice assistants - Alexa and Siri...