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5 little things that would make Alexa a lot better

Millions of people use Amazon's virtual voice assistant on a daily basis, but there's always room for improvement. Here are some humble suggestions.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Alexa is everywhere these days -- not just in Amazon's own family of voice-activated Echo devices, but also a growing number of third-party gadgets (thermostats, light switches, cars, yoga robots -- you name it). Millions talk to the virtual assistant every day, and Amazon is constantly rolling out updates to stave off competition from the likes of Google, Apple and others.

Still, like other voice assistants, Alexa is far from perfect (or, as Amazon puts it, "she's always getting smarter.") Short of waiting for the kinds of big advancements in AI that will make her notably more useful, there are lots of "little things" Amazon could do to tweak the Alexa user experience right now. Mind you, I'm not suggesting all of them would be easy for Amazon to implement, but they all seem doable, and worthwhile.

So, without further ado, here are some humble suggestions:

Yo Alexa, let us customize you!

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Custom wake words

OK, so the first "little thing" is kind of a biggie. By default, users can get Alexa's attention by saying her name before asking a question or giving a command. They can also switch things up and wake Alexa by saying "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer." That's all well and good -- but what if you want to call her something else?

That's exactly what some Alexa loyalists have been clamoring for since the assistant's inception, so I took to Twitter to poll some of those users, asking why they wanted customization options, and what wake words they'd go with. Aside from offering goofy, lighthearted suggestions ("Hey Beavis," "Big Baby Jesus" and "Ugggggggh" just to name a few), some pointed out that saying "Alexa" made them feel like they were living in an Amazon commercial. One user with roommates bemoaned living in a home with multiple Amazon accounts and multiple Echo devices, claiming that unique names would help people differentiate. Another just didn't want their kids getting too cozy with the idea that Amazon and Google have all of the answers.

If reports are accurate, Google may already be working toward letting users pick their own wake word for the Google Assistant, so Amazon might get beaten to the punch here (and, in fairness, I find "OK Google" to be a lot clunkier than "Alexa" as far as wake-up phrases go). The challenge is obviously quality control -- Echo devices are fine-tuned to hear their default wake words and to dismiss false positives, and it's unclear how letting users pick their own wake word would affect performance.

Still, given that these are disembodied voices we're supposed to converse with in the privacy of our own homes, the idea of offering up an extra layer of personalization and control makes sense to me. I'd also be remiss not to mention folks with thick accents or speech difficulties -- the option to pick the perfect wake word for their specific pattern of speech could be a nice accessibility upgrade.

A male Alexa?

Speaking of personalization -- what about Alexa's gender? Much has been made of the predominance of female voices in the digital assistance space -- and unlike Siri and the Google Assistant, Alexa doesn't offer the option of a male voice. Adding one would require fresh voice-over work and could potentially compromise the singular nature of Alexa's "personality," but it still seems like something Amazon should at least consider.

Amazon wouldn't address any specific plans when I contacted them for this piece, but they did tell me that the goal is to have a more human-like Alexa. "A friend would be able to tell if you were happy or sad when you were talking to them and they'd adjust their response based on your emotion," an Amazon spokesperson explained. "That type of personalization and humanization is our north star for Alexa too.

Still, keeping Alexa locked as a female seems like an arbitrary choice, and one that could even cut against that personalization effort for users who'd prefer something different. Amazon says that the name Alexa is a nod to the Library of Alexandria, so why not call the male version "Alex", or "Alexi"?

Alexa still can't control smart thermostats via the otherwise great "Routines" feature.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Deeper routines

Here's another big one I'm hoping to see in 2018 -- improved options for customizing Alexa's "Routines."

If you aren't familiar, Alexa's Routines feature lets you assign multiple actions to a single custom phrase. You could, for instance, create a routine that turns off all of your smart plugs and smart lights when you say "Alexa, goodnight." Saying "Alexa, good morning" could turn them all back on and trigger her to read the day's news headlines, too. In my home, saying "Alexa, it's too dark in here" will brighten all of the lights in the room to 100 percent.

It's one of my favorite Alexa features, but I wish that I could do more with it. You can't create or edit a routine with your voice, for instance, and you can't use a routine to control smart thermostats. Routines can't trigger songs to start playing, either. 

That's a strange omission given that music is central to the Echo's appeal, and stranger still when you consider Amazon's own streaming service, Amazon Music. Why not add the option for automated music cues as an exclusive feature for Amazon Music subscribers? That alone would be enough to get me to switch over from Spotify.

If not music, then how about Alexa herself? It'd be great if you could select a custom response for your routine's command and craft your own, personalized Alexa easter eggs. 

Better podcast controls

Music playback is a constant point of focus for smart speakers, but a lot of folks use them to listen to podcasts, too. With Alexa, you just ask for the show you want, and it'll pull up the most recent episode.

That's all well and good, but I'd love to see some improvement here. One good place to start might be a mechanism for "subscribing" to shows, or at least listing the ones you like for Alexa. Then, you could just ask if there are any new episodes of your favorite shows to listen to, rather than checking in on each one individually (or looking them up on your phone). The ability to track played and unplayed episodes would be a nice touch, too.

I still want to see more from the touchscreens on the Echo Show and the Echo Spot (pictured above).

Chris Monroe/CNET

Improved touchscreens

If you've read my reviews of the Echo Show and the Echo Spot, then you know that I wasn't terribly impressed with the touchscreen on either device. In both cases, I didn't think the added visuals and controls did enough to enhance Alexa's voice-first user interface. I wanted Amazon to show me more, and I still do.

It could happen in 2018 -- especially after an apparently strong holiday push for the Echo Spot. As more and more people use Alexa's touchscreen devices, developers will place a higher priority on incorporating Alexa's touchscreens into their skills and integrations.

Now Playing: Watch this: We ask Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant the same three...
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That will undoubtedly help both devices feel more polished as time goes on, but I'm hoping Amazon makes an extra push of their own here, too. There are still too many instances where you'll ask Alexa something and then see nothing on the touchscreen as she answers. Preprogrammed visuals for common questions and requests would be a good start -- imagery drawn from Alexa's AI in real time would be even better. I suspect that we'll get there eventually, but until then, the Show and Spot will continue to take a backseat to the value of the Echo and the Dot.

As I said up top, these are just suggestions, and the list is far from exhaustive. Amazon's user base wants a lot of different things from Alexa as she continues to evolve -- Amazon's big challenge is to steer the ship in a direction that keeps everyone engaged (and one that keeps them from jumping overboard and paddling over to the SS Google Assistant).

From my perspective, the best strategy would be to keep refining the core user experience, and to provide plenty of room for customization. After all, the one thing Alexa users want more than anything is to make Alexa their own.