One of the hot new user experience design trends being explored is interfaces without screens. They’re nothing new—we’ve been talking to automated systems on customer service lines for years—but with natural language recognition getting more advanced they now make better sense as a part of daily life.
Last year I was given an Amazon Echo Dot. It’s a small $50 device that allows me to interact with Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa. At first I thought it was a gimmick (hence not buying it myself), but as I got accustomed to using it I realized how helpful and seamless voice-controlled assistants can be.
Since my interactions with Alexa and Google Assistant are intertwined with their respective home speakers, I’ll be reviewing them together.
Aesthetically, Google’s Home Mini wins, hands-down. It’s absolutely beautiful. The round body and textured top surface make it less like a toaster and more like a piece of furniture that I’d naturally have in my home. There’s a strip of colorful glowing dots below the fabric that helps the user know when it’s active, thinking, etc. Google even added a microphone mute switch to give users a better sense of privacy if they wish; Amazon is always listening unless you turn the device off. Functionally, however, it’s difficult to know with certainty if
Google hears me when I start talking.
The Echo Dot has a gorgeous blue LED ring around the top edge of the device that no only signals that my words aren’t being lost into the void, but partial lighting indicates the direction that my voice is coming from to further indicate I’m being heard (as opposed to someone across the room or the television interfering). The Google Home Mini’s lights glow on the top of the device when I start taking, but I can’t always see them. One caveat to all this is that Google Assistant has yet to miss a single question.
Both devices have volume and power access. The Home Mini has a touch surface, which seems hidden at first, but once you learn where to tap it’s fairly straightforward. Amazon’s buttons are on the top of the device, clearly marked and easily accessible.
The Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot are both pretty much plug-and-play. Each has a companion app that helps connect the device to wifi and show you a few tricks. If you stop there and don’t want to connect to any other services or devices, setup is about even. Although it’s worth noting that Google’s software is more intuitive and aesthetically pleasing.
Connecting to services and devices, however, is a different story. The contrast in ease of setup is almost embarrassing. I received three Philips Hue smart bulbs for my birthday last year. It took me over two hours to get Alexa to correctly turn my lights on and off with natural language. It took me ten minutes to setup Google Assistant.
Winner: Google Assistant
Each assistant has software abilities—Alexa’s are called Skills, Google just calls them features. With Alexa, you install skills to build a customized personal assistant. Installing is as easy as tapping an icon in the companion app and choosing Add Skill. With Google, the personal assistant has access to all features at any time. For example, on Alexa I have to install a “Rain Sounds” skill; with Google Assistant I just ask and it plays.
Amazon has a head start on Google and it shows. From the looks of it there are more third-party Skills available to Alexa than Google Assistant, which means at this point in time Alexa is technically more capable. Two things worth noting: 1) I expect difference will equalize over time, if not flip in favor of Google, which is a more developer-friendly company than Amazon. 2) I rarely used any skills on Alexa outside of the core set that came with the device.
Winner: Amazon Alexa
So what’s it like actually using the devices? All the technology in the world doesn't matter if the end user experience isn't functional and enjoyable. I’m happy to say that both products are viable options (cough Siri cough).
Getting each device’s attention is as easy as saying a word or phrase. Just say “Alexa” for the Echo Dot, and “Hey Google” or “Ok Google” for the Home Mini. They both work great, though I was surprised at how disappointed I was that Google’s assistant isn’t personified the way Amazon’s is. As silly as it sounds, there’s something fun about having Alexa in the house, whereas the name Google Assistant is completely lifeless despite both services providing the same thing.
As I mentioned earlier, the ring of LED lights on Amazon’s hardware ends up being a very human method of interacting with a physical object. Just like when talking to a person, the device lights up in your direction to signal that it's listening in the same way that a person makes eye contact. Experience wise, however, this is the only area in which the Echo Dot beats the Home Mini.
Google Assistant understands natural language far better than Amazon Alexa. With Google I speak normally, and sometimes I even mess up, stutter, or change what I'm saying, and it still correctly interprets my input and provides exactly what I'm looking for. With Alexa I occasionally get incorrect results if I don't rehearse the phrase in my head before getting Alexa’s attention. This became less of an issue, however, after using Alexa for a short period of time to learn what works and what doesn’t.
It’s no surprise that Google really shines in the speed and accuracy of their searches. Without a doubt, Google Assistant returns answers much faster than Amazon Alexa. For comparison, its responses are about as fast as asking another human being a question, while Amazon Alexa takes a bit of time to process. The difference is small but noticeable with use.
Winner: Google Assistant
Hardware-wise, the Home Mini is a little more beautiful, and the Echo Dot is a little easier to interact with. Setting up the Home Mini is far and away an easier process, but once you’re setup Amazon has slightly more third-party software at this time. In the end Google Home Mini with Google Assistant is a superior product—it’s faster, more accurate, has more developer potential, and it’s plain beautiful to look at.
Overall Winner: Google Assistant