Interacting with a smart speaker

Soon, my mornings will be a lot easier. I’ll have an assistant to wake me up, open the curtains, switch on the lights, turn on the coffee machine, select a relaxed playlist and remind me of my meetings and deadlines. What a relaxed start of the day… And the best thing? To accomplish this, I only need a smart speaker.

In the spring of 2018, we (Jason Pridmore, Daniel Trottier and I) started a study about Intelligent Personal Assistants (such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa) and smart speakers (Amazon Echo, Apple’s HomePod and Google Home). We want to know how employees of Erasmus University, University of Maryland, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee use intelligent personal assistants and how they think about smart speakers. In this blog, I will tell you what happened when focus group participants interacted with Google Home.

But first, a short introduction to our research topic. Smart speakers can be integrated with smart home equipment such as smart lights, TV’s, and power plugs. With a simple voice command (e.g. ‘Hey Google’), you activate the intelligent personal assistant, after which you can set timers, find online information, request a weather forecast or route information, control your smart home equipment, start Netflix or Spotify, check your calendar, send text messages, or ask silly questions (‘Hey Google, tell me a riddle’). Since October 24th, Google Home is available in the Netherlands.

During the focus groups, participants had the opportunity to interact with a Google Home device that we brought from Canada. Some participants were already familiar with smart speakers, whereas others didn’t know about their existence until we introduced these devices in our survey. As is seen in the image, Google Home is a device with a clean design that easily blends into the interior, it has no distinct features or human-like appearance. When participants asked Google Assistant to complete small tasks for them or to look up information, they often thanked the device. According to one participant, this is caused by the fact that you’re engaging in a conversation with the device: “If I would ask you: ‘What should I eat tonight?’ And you answer, I would also say: ‘Thanks for the advice.’” Interactions with Google Assistant are experienced as an ongoing conversation, whereby users would like Google Assistant to remember what they asked before and to process multi-layered questions.

Moreover, many participants referred to Google Home as a ‘he’ and to Google Assistant as a ‘she’ (Google Assistant has a female voice). Some even attributed character traits to Google Assistant; one of the participants said: “She’ll always be friendly”. Google Home is a non-human entity, where users attribute human traits to. This form of anthropomorphism is an interesting result in our study. The human-like qualities were feared by one participant who was afraid that Google Home could sneak ‘his’ way into family life and become a new family member that is always listening. Another respondent would like to further anthropomorphise the device: “I would rather have something that also looks like a human or animal.”

In the near future, we will find out if our mornings turn out to be as convenient as described above and whether we will engage in amicable interactions with Google Assistant. If you find yourself thanking Google (or Siri or Alexa, for that matter), please let me know!

Roy Borghouts


Anouk Mols is a PhD candidate at the Media and Communication department. Her research is part of the Mapping Mobile Privacy project.