Updated: April 2022
Alexa is Amazon's virtual assistant. It is the fundamental part of the Amazon Echo devices and smart devices of the brand. It is also possible to use it directly from Android and IOS devices thanks to the Amazon Alexa application.
Alexa allows you to consult on a wide variety of topics, such as the weather or sports results, perform mathematical operations and conversions between metric or monetary units, configure notifications or manage the calendar, among others. It is also possible to extend its operation thanks to the installation of skills of different types. In addition, Alexa allows the management and control of compatible smart devices, such as plugs, light bulbs or thermostats. This review focuses on the use of Alexa from mobile devices, although certain aspects are common to the use of Alexa from Amazon smart devices.
Interaction is a fundamental part of any system so that the user can communicate with it. In this case, Alexa uses verbal commands to interact with the user, as well as menus, tabs, and buttons to interact with the app. Next, an analysis of how Alexa interacts with the user will be carried out, having carried out a series of tests with the application for mobile devices.
The interface in both IOS and Android is identical, presenting the same structure and organization.
It is divided into five tabs, which are located at the bottom of the screen. The tabs are:
- Home, where the current time, some skills and several frequently used features are presented.
Here you can also press the Alexa icon to talk. However, this action can be greatly simplified if hands-free mode is activated in the app settings. This mode allows that, while the app is open, you can ask the assistant for something from anywhere just by saying “Alexa”.
On the other hand, in this home tab, there is an icon of “?” In the upper right part, if you click, you can consult help guides, contact Amazon by phone or email, send suggestions and consult legal aspects.
- Communications, to make calls, send messages, activate Drop In (Functionality that allows calls between Echo devices) and write a message to be played on an Alexa device.
- Play, to play music and books.
- Devices, where devices can be added and configured. Numerous home automation-oriented skills can also be consulted here, by accessing “My digital home skills”.
- More, where you can access the configuration of smart devices and alarms and reminders, check activity, manage lists, contacts and routines, obtain and manage skills, access help, make suggestions and other options.
Regarding the tabs, they are perfectly structured, allowing quick and easy navigation through the main functions of the application. In addition, the names are clear and concise, and respond to the functionality they contain.
Another aspect to note is the possibility of selecting one of the two available color themes. The first theme, called clear, offers us a version of the Alexa application with a white background and black letters. The other theme, called dark, is the default after installation and is characterized by a navy blue background and white letters. In general terms, both themes present a high contrast, making it easier for people with visual difficulties to navigate through them.
Below are some of the native commands that Alexa incorporates, grouped by theme:
- Time. The weather forecasts will be made according to AccuWeather, obtained simply by asking questions like “Alexa, what is the weather today?”.
- News. You can listen to the news from different newspapers by saying phrases like “Alexa, I want to listen to the news”.
- Set alarms, reminders and calendar events. Alexa allows you to program several alarms at the same time, which we can customize with the song we want by saying “Alexa, set an alarm at three in the afternoon with music by (Artist name)”. Reminders work in a similar way, being able to set them by saying phrases like “Alexa, remind me to remove the washing machine at three in the afternoon”, and being able to show them at all times by saying “Alexa, tell me my reminders”. Timers can also be set simultaneously, by saying "Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes." As far as the calendar is concerned, events can be programmed, with phrases such as "Alexa, add an event to my calendar" in which it will later ask us the name of the event and the day and time.
- Free Guest Lists. You can create to-do lists, shopping lists, ingredients for a dish... Example: "Alexa, add parsley to my shopping list".
- Music and books. With Alexa, you can play songs from Amazon Music or Spotify, as specified, with phrases such as “Alexa, play music by (artist name)”. It is worth mentioning that the functionality to play a specific song or album will only be available for the paid Premium versions of Amazon Music or Spotify. In addition, if you have books purchased on Kindle, saying "Alexa, read the book (name of the book)" will play the book via audio, as if it were an audiobook. The volume can also be adjusted at any time by saying “Alexa, turn the volume up/down”.
- Amazon shopping. Through voice commands, you can search and purchase in the Amazon store (“Alexa, I want to buy some headphones”) and add products (“Alexa, add the number 1 to my basket”) and manage the basket (“Alexa, how goes my basket").
- Non-Alcoholic Beverages. There are countless questions that can be asked of Alexa, from asking for curiosities such as “Alexa, tell me something curious” to searching for recipes (“Alexa, how do you make a stew?”).
Most of the commands that have been mentioned are those that we consider essential, although surely we have left out some that could be very interesting. Fortunately, due to the popularity of Alexa, it is very easy to find additional command information instantly on the internet.
Alexa utility skills
Alexa offers several possibilities to make video calls depending on the user's preferences and who they want to call. What you do have to be clear about is the need to have a device with a screen, be it a Smartphone compatible with Alexa or an Amazon Echo Show.
Native video calls
Native video calls are the ones that are pre-established with Alexa and can be configured and made from the communication section of the application.
On the one hand, there is Drop In, an exclusive Alexa functionality that allows you to make video or audio calls between Alexa devices. It is worth mentioning that when making a call through Drop In, the audio and video of the device being called will be directly accessed, without giving the receiver the option to accept or reject the call. This is why, for security reasons, Drop In will only be allowed if permissions are given between the devices for it.
To activate Drop In on our Alexa devices we have to enter the communication category in the lower menu, click on the Drop In symbol, select the contact with the Alexa device and activate the “Allow Drop In” option.
Making calls through Drop In is very comfortable and simple, being able to make calls from the Alexa application itself by pressing the Drop In icon or saying “Alexa, call (device name) by Drop In”.
This functionality is ideal for those people who want to contact in a simple way avoiding all the obstacles that can arise when making a conventional video call. Another situation in which it could be ideal to use Drop in is when you are away from home and you want to make sure of what is happening inside. It is enough to ask Alexa to Drop in with the Echo device that we want to have a real-time image on our mobile.
There is also the possibility of making calls, which work with the same interface as Drop In, but giving the recipient of the call the possibility of taking the call or hanging up. To make calls, you can access it from the Alexa App by clicking on the Call icon in the Communication category, or by saying phrases such as “Alexa, call (contact)”.
These calls or video calls can be made between the different Amazon Echo devices, between mobile and device or between mobiles, always keeping in mind the need to have an Amazon account.
When calling from an Echo device, Alexa will always ask if you want to contact the Alexa device or the contact's mobile phone. On the other hand, if another user's Alexa devices are called from the mobile app, the incoming call will be received by all the devices and it will be up to the receiver to decide which one to answer with.
In the version that we are analyzing, Alexa only offers as an alternative to native video calls the possibility of making video calls through the Skype application. This functionality allows you to communicate with users who do not have an Amazon device in their possession, nor an account.
On Echo devices, the video call will be the same as any other, since the interface is the same. On the other hand, the receivers will receive the Skype call as if it were one more without having to configure anything previously.
To be able to use this feature, all you have to do is have a Skype account linked to your Amazon account through the Alexa mobile app and have the Skype app installed.
In general, listening comprehension is good. Alexa understands most verbal commands, although sometimes she doesn't understand the user. However, other times it understands a word or phrase that is nothing like what the user has said. However, throughout the updates that are coming, the understanding of Alexa is being refined and it understands the user better and better.
Alexa skills use Alexa voice recognition to function. The same failures have been detected in these skills, not understanding words like "furosemide" in the "Medication information" skill. When Alexa receives an order that she doesn't know what it is, either because she hasn't understood it correctly, or because it hasn't been programmed for her, she tells the user with a message that says "Sorry, but I couldn't find the answer to what you have asked me" or something similar.
Like most modern virtual assistants, Alexa understands natural language. This allows the user to interact with it without having to speak artificially or using rigid voice commands. It is noted that, over the last few years, they have been improving voice recognition, since, in older versions, in many cases you had to give the exact order for it to be identified (as is the case of tossing a coin , which previously only responded if you said “Alexa, flip a coin”), and is now more flexible, allowing several verbal alternatives (now there are alternatives such as “Alexa, flip a coin”). This does not mean that it is not perfect, and that in some cases there are not many alternatives and it does not always understand you, such as when identifying an artist on Spotify.
As for the language used by Alexa to provide the information, it is very natural. In addition, Alexa has a certain naturalness and expressiveness, with popular expressions that give her a certain humanity and warmth in her speech, thus distinguishing her from other virtual assistants.
A negative aspect of the interaction with Alexa, at least in the applications for IOS and Android, is that the only way to make inquiries with Alexa is through voice commands. Alexa does not have an alternative in these applications that allows you to communicate with her through the use of the keyboard. What he does do is show his answer in writing, such as when he is asked "Who is Jordi Hurtado?" or "How tall is Everest?"
In relation to the response time, it is quite fast both in the movement through the app and in the response after making a voice order. Two types must be distinguished. On the one hand, the response time when interacting in the application with the menu and tabs, and on the other, the time that Alexa spends reacting to what is required through verbal commands. Regarding the first, it is practically instantaneous, only being slowed down when loading the configuration options. For its part, Alexa responds almost instantly when asked for an action.
The Alexa application does not include accessibility options, which does not prevent it from being used by people with some type of disability. Next, it will be analyzed how accessible the application and the virtual assistant are for the different types of functional diversity.
People with visual functional diversity
Although there is no option to configure accessibility in the Alexa applications for Android and IOS, this does not present any difficulty for this group. All elements, including tabs, menu options and buttons, are perfectly labeled, allowing absolute navigation through the application. VoiceOver and Talkback screen readers interact seamlessly with all interface elements.
One feature offered by the application is the possibility of activating sound alerts. These prompts will play whenever Alexa is said and serve as confirmation that the app is up and running. This sound is later followed by our corresponding request that we want to make. When the request has been made, the application will emit another sound that confirms that it has understood our command or message.
Another aspect that helps people with low vision to navigate is the theme and colors used. The background, although it is not black but dark navy blue, contrasts with the white color of the letters, which allows a better distinction of the text.
Finally, indicate that since the interaction with Alexa to request an action is done by voice, it is completely accessible. In addition, the text displayed on the screen can be read using the corresponding screen reader.
People with hearing functional diversity
This group may have some kind of difficulty when using the Alexa application. While it is true that navigating through the tabs and the menu is not difficult, interacting with Alexa to ask for something can be difficult or impossible, depending on the degree of hearing loss. In the analysis carried out, no alternative way to voice commands was found, such as the use of the on-screen keyboard. However, the response provided by Alexa can be viewed on the application screen.
Finally, indicate that the accessibility aids that integrate both IOS and Android can be used and configured in the accessibility options, which improves the use of Alexa by this group in some aspects.
People with physical functional diversity
This section focuses on people who have difficulty operating a mobile device. In this sense, the Alexa application may present some kind of difficulty for this group.
A related problem is that those people who have problems communicating verbally will not be able to use this virtual assistant since it does not include any alternative option to verbal commands.
As for the navigation of the application, the assistive technologies available for this group can be configured from the IOS and Android settings, which can be of great help.
Despite all the above, the application will be more or less accessible depending on the type and degree of physical disability that the user has. Thus, the application will be fully accessible for a paralyzed person, but not for a quadriplegic, for example.
In addition, a previously existing problem that could complicate accessibility for this group in the Alexa application was that in order to talk to Alexa, you had to press the Alexa button. Recently this has been solved, allowing that, simply by saying "Alexa" preceded by the order that we want to give Alexa, it will be enough for her to start listening.
People with intellectual or mental functional diversity
This group of people is made up of a great variety of very different cases and situations. The limiting factor for these people can only be cognitive. The application is not intended for any group of people with special needs, and does not adapt its behavior to this fact.
It can be said that the accessibility of Alexa for people with intellectual or mental functional diversity is determined in each case by the person's ability to interact with technology and their own knowledge. Technology that must be taken into account that is not adapted.
It is not a group that configures a specific type of disability, but can be affected, due to age, by visual, hearing, physical or memory problems. Thus, accessibility for these people is determined by these problems, and the same aids already described in the previous sections are used.
It should be noted that managing the application itself can be more or less complicated depending on how these people deal with technology. Thus, a wide range is presented, ranging from people who barely know how to handle technology to others with great skill in handling it. In any case, voice interaction with Alexa to request or require some action makes the use of the virtual assistant itself accessible.
In this section, an analysis is made of how satisfactory the Alexa virtual assistant is for the user, as well as how useful it is for the elderly or people with disabilities. In addition, the advantages and disadvantages for these groups will be studied.
The main factor in determining the level of satisfaction that the user has with a virtual assistant is how easy and pleasant the interaction with it is. The main way in which a virtual assistant communicates with the user is the voice, either the voice that the assistant uses to transmit information, or that of the user himself. In this sense, Alexa's voice is very pleasant due to its naturalness and the popular expressions it uses, making it seem that a person is speaking. Regarding the language that the user can use to communicate with Alexa, it is the user's own language, since the virtual assistant understands natural language perfectly. For all this, communication with Alexa is very natural, as if you were talking to a person, and you can even have conversations.
Another important aspect in the user experience is the response time between the request made by the user and the response provided by the virtual assistant. In this regard, Alexa responds on the spot, with no lag times. It must be clarified that this is true as long as you have an Internet connection and the transmission speed is normal.
But it is not only necessary that the communication is pleasant and that the response time is fast. The correctness of the answer is essential for the virtual assistant to have quality. In this regard, Alexa understands most of the time the request made by the user, providing accurate and reliable answers. however, sometimes you either do not understand a word correctly or do not have the answer to the request. In these cases, the virtual assistant states these facts very politely, apologizing for it at times.
Usefulness, advantages and disadvantages
Alexa can be a tool of great interest for the accessibility of certain groups. Some possible uses are discussed below.
- Easy to use. Alexa allows you to perform actions such as searching for information, translating words or phrases, looking up the meaning of words, using the calculator, converting between metric or monetary units, checking the weather, etc. comfortably and easily by voice. This is useful for people with visual or physical disabilities who cannot operate a device, as well as for older people who are visually impaired or are not very computer literate.
- Domotics. Alexa allows you to control compatible devices by voice. This is very useful for people with physical disabilities who cannot move but can press a button on the device's screen, or for blind people who would otherwise be unable to operate such devices due to accessibility issues. In addition, for the elderly it may be of interest since it facilitates the manipulation of domestic devices.
- Memory. Access to the personal calendar and reminders, by voice, and the notification of events or the creation of routines can be very useful for older people who have memory problems. In addition, with skills such as Memory, memory can be exercised, which results in a very important benefit for the mental health of these people.
- Audiobooks. Alexa can read Kindle books aloud or play audiobooks that the user has in their library. This is very useful for visually impaired people, and can be interesting for people who cannot use a book. It can also be useful for older people with age-related vision problems.
- Loneliness. There are certain studies that have shown that Alexa contributes to improving the loneliness that certain older people may have thanks to the possibility of being able to establish a conversation between the user and Alexa in a very similar way to talking to a person.
Next, some new features that Alexa has included in its latest updates are going to be listed:
- Water running: This option allows Alexa to activate a series of actions when it detects the sound of a running tap to alert the user.
- Appiance Beeping Routine: Detects sounds from appliances to identify when they have finished their task and notify us when it is done.
- The use of widgets on devices with a screen.
- Ultrasound motion detection so when we get close to our Echo devices the lights turn on or off. This functionality is available for fourth generation Echo devices.
Alexa is Amazon's virtual assistant. It can be used from the Android and IOS mobile application, and is integrated into all Amazon smart devices. It allows searching for information and accessing multiple utilities through verbal commands, as well as handling compatible devices. In addition, the functionality of Alexa can be increased thanks to the development of additional skills by third parties, which greatly opens the possibilities of this assistant.
This virtual assistant is perfectly accessible. The mobile application can be managed by people with some type of disability, and since it is managed by voice, it is accessible to almost all groups. However, since the application does not have an alternative way to input verbal commands, people with auditory functional diversity cannot interact with Alexa, at least from the mobile application analyzed here. [Removed sentence that mentions not being able to talk to Alexa in the app without pressing the button, since it can now be activated by voice]
The possibility of developing skills by third parties, thus increasing the functionality of Alexa, is of great interest to people with disabilities. Any developer can create useful and fully accessible skills for these people, be it games, drug reminders or shopping lists.
The strong point, however, of Alexa is home automation. Being able to operate home devices using voice commands is a great help for people with disabilities, especially for people with blindness who have access to devices that would not otherwise be accessible, and for people with physical disabilities who have mobility problems . In addition, it can greatly facilitate its use by older people with little knowledge of technology thanks to the use of natural language to interact.
Another very noteworthy aspect is that Alexa can read Kindle digital books aloud, as well as play audiobooks, which is a great tool for people with visual disabilities. The least positive point is that this virtual assistant does not have any alternative to the input of verbal commands, which makes it difficult for people with functional hearing diversity to use it.
Another less positive point is that Alexa cannot control the terminal's own applications, although it does allow you to open some by voice commands. Thus, this virtual assistant can only control compatible devices and Alexa functions and skills, so it does not replace the device's virtual assistant, it simply complements it.
- Reading books aloud and playing audiobooks.
- Control of home devices by voice.
- Possibility of increasing its functionality through skills.
- Expressive and natural voice that uses popular expressions.
- The ability to communicate with other Alexa devices easily with the use of Drop In.
- The development of an alternative to voice command input may be suggested.
- The possibility of managing phone applications with Alexa could be studied.
- The possibility of being able to make standard telephone calls could be explored.
- Sometimes, as in the case of the news, it seems that you do not have much control over what is being played.