I love giving gifts just as much as I love receiving them, so each December I like to share my own Gift Giving Guide For Productive Humans. There have been a number of distractions this season that put me behind schedule on all of my gift giving preparations (more about that in future posts), so this entry comes a lot later than usual—too late to be useful, perhaps—but I still think it’s worth sharing with you. And since the most productive gift anyone can give is more time, I will keep it short.
As with previous years, my gift list consists of only one thing, and the only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive ($50 or less), simple to use, and most importantly, it is useful and enables or supports productive work. It has to be a tool that you want to use, not a tool that gets in the way. If it’s also well designed and well made, then even better.
So without further introduction, my Truly Productive Gift for 2016 is…
Maybe not what you were expecting from this list, and honestly I wasn’t either. But I looked back on the past year and thought about what tools I find myself relying on every day, tools that improved or even changed how I work. That usually means a tool that helps reduce my cognitive load, something to get tasks or ideas out of my head so I can focus on doing high-value work instead, or help me keep better track of how I spend my time and energy. The Echo Dot is something that can do all of those things in some ways, and yet in other ways it does more than I ever thought I would need.
Well, technically it’s Amazon’s voice-control bot named Alexa that does these things, and the Echo Dot is just one of many devices that connects to Alexa’s brain. I purchased my device on a whim, having heard more and more about how the capabilities of Alexa were growing and improving all the time. I’m hardly an early adopter, but there is something about the core idea of interacting with a computer through conversation that I find really intriguing. And with digital user experience being a big part of my job, I felt some professional interest in learning more about where this technology is headed.
I’ve had an Echo Dot in my office for a few months now, and it didn’t take long for talking to Alexa’s disembodied voice to become part of my daily routine. Walk into the office and say, “Alexa – good morning,” and she says good morning back to me and shares a random piece of news or trivia to start the day. I get a briefing of all the news and stories I want, all managed via the easy-to-use Alexa app. And I’ve connected Alexa to give me weather updates and play my streaming music libraries. I can turn on lights in my house, and with tools like IFTTT I can connect strings of triggered actions with one request, and of course I can order just about anything I can think of directly from Amazon just by asking for it.
Alexa continues to improve with more functionality nearly every week. Some of it is really useful, some of it is just for fun, and the requirements for creating your own “apps” or integrations for Alexa are pretty open and easy for developers to get started.
Voice command technology a really fun new world to explore, and one we should probably all get used to. These are still very new tools, but what used to be mere features of an existing operating system are quickly becoming entirely unique operating systems and device ecosystems of their own. Siri has been a prominent part of Apple’s iPhone for many years, and I’m typing this on a new MacBook Pro that has a dedicated Siri button on its touchbar. Microsoft has been trying to do the same with its Cortana tool across their devices, and Google recently rolled out its own Google Home speaker as a direct competitor to the Amazon Echo line.
But for now, Amazon has them all beat with Alexa. Especially with the low cost of the Echo Dot, they’ve made this technology accessible, and the fact that Alexa works with both Apple and Android systems, plus dozens of other devices and apps, means it has a lot fewer restrictions on adoption. In other words, chances are good that if you don’t have one of these now, you’ll probably know someone who does before the year is over, and you’ll find yourself with one of your own or something very similar within the next year or two.
In fact, I’d love to help someone get their own chance to learn more about Alexa, so…
I’m putting my money where my words are and giving away an Echo Dot to one lucky person!
Enter my giveaway. The giveaway ended on December 29, 2016 – congratulations to the winner, Aaron Zufall!
Good luck, and may the spirit of the Chrismahanukwanzakah holiday season bring you rest, and productive energy for the new year. See you in 2017!