I recently read a very interesting article on the design of aspects of choosing a wake word, the word you use to turn on a voice-activated system. In Star Trek it’s “Computer”, but these days two of the more popular ones are “Alexa” and “OK Google”. The article’s author was a designer and noted that she found “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” to be more pleasant to use than “Alexa”. As I was reading the comments (I know, I know) I noticed that a lot of the people who strongly protested that they preferred “Alexa” had usernames or avatars that I would associate with male users. It struck me that there might be an underlying social pattern here.
So, being the type of nerd I am, I whipped up a quick little survey to look at the interaction between user gender and their preference for wake words. The survey only had two questions:
- What is your gender?
- If Google Home and the Echo offered identical performance in all ways except for the wake word (the word or phrase you use to wake the device and begin talking to it), which wake word would you prefer?
- “Ok Google” or “Hey Google”
I included only those options becuase those are the defaults–I am aware you can choose to change the Echo’s wake word. (And probably should, given recent events.) 67 people responded to my survey. (If you were one of them, thanks!)
So what were the results? They were actually pretty strongly in line with my initial observations: as a group, only men preferred “Alexa” to “Ok Google”. Furthermore, this preference was far weaker than people of other genders’ for “Ok Google”. Women preferred “Ok Google” at a rate of almost two-to-one, and no people of other genders preferred “Alexa”.
I did have a bit of a skewed sample, with more women than men and people of other genders, but the differences between genders were robust enough to be statistically significant (c2(2, N = 67) = 7.25, p = 0.02)).
So what’s the take-away? Well, for one, Johna Paolino (the author of the original article) is by no means alone in her preference for a non-gendered wake word. More broadly, I think that, like the Clippy debacle, this is excellent evidence that there are strong gendered differences in how users’ gender affects their interaction with virtual agents. If you’re working to create virtual agents, it’s important to consider all types of users or you might end up creating something that rubs more than half of your potential customers the wrong way.
2 thoughts on “Preference for wake words varies by user gender”
I think this just reveals the serious lack of leadership in most women and their unwillingness to issue direct commands. If women expect to take positions of dominance they’ll need to be comfortable issuing direct orders to subordinates (“ALEXA, do this!”, not having patty-cake parties (“ok guys! Hey, how about we…”). Why are we raising women to be so timid? I blame the patriarchy.
I don’t usually approve these kinds of comments, (I get them whenever I write about gender) but I think this is a really good example of the phenomena of policing women’s language. That is to say, whenever there’s a linguistic difference between women & men, it’s framed as something being wrong with women’s language rather than the inverse. Why would you argue that women aren’t being authoritative enough rather than that men are being inconsiderate? I’m genuinely asking; I can’t think of any evidence that would point to the “correct” type of language use here.