When voice assistants first came out, I thought they were silly gimmicks and nothing more. Now, I live and die by Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. They navigate me where I want to go, send messages to my friends, and control the lights and thermostats in my house. But occasionally, one or the other will mishear me and perform the wrong command, or just ignore me entirely.
Early on, Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant required a bit more finesse to get voice commands working properly. These days, they’re much smarter, and spokespeople at both Amazon and Google noted that their devices are always learning about human speech patterns to improve their ability to understand us. It shows. They can pronounce tough names better than before, connect synonyms like “couch” and “sofa,” and even learn the idiosyncrasies of your voice—so the more you talk to them, the better they get. Still, there are occasions where things can go awry. If you’re having trouble, there are a few proactive ways to smooth out the process.
Place them properly
First and foremost, make sure your device—whether it’s a standalone voice assistant product like an Amazon Echo or a phone with an assistant built-in—can actually hear you. If it’s too far away, it may not understand your command, if it hears you at all. Don’t try to hide it behind books or cover it with decorative disguises, as you risk muffling the microphones. And don’t leave it somewhere where ambient noise might confuse it—like next to your TV or your child’s play area.
In general, I’ve been pretty amazed at how well voice assistants can understand me from less-than-ideal spots, and they are learning to ignore ambient noise—but there’s no reason to make their job any harder than it has to be. If you need more than one unit to cover a large area, Echo Dots and Google Home Minis are cheap and easy to spread around your space.
Train them on your voice
If your assistant is having trouble understanding you or someone in your home, there are a few helpful options built into the app.
First, give the device a little extra information on your voice by setting up what Alexa calls “Voice Profiles” and Google calls “Voice Match.” This feature teaches the assistant your specific voice, which not only helps it understand you better, but can also ensure you get relevant responses. So, when you ask what’s happening today, for example, you’ll hear items from your agenda, not your spouse’s.
To set up Alexa’s Voice Profiles, each person needs to download the Alexa app, log in with the main user’s account, but select “I’m Someone Else” when prompted. Then, they can head to Settings > Alexa Account > Recognized Voices in the Alexa app to turn the feature on and train their voice (or they can just ask Alexa to “Learn my voice“). If you have a Google Home, a secondary user must open the Home app, log in with their own Google account, select the Google Home in question, and tap the Voice Match banner to add a new user.
Siri doesn’t have this exact feature, but you can re-train its “Hey Siri” trigger by switching it off, then on again from the Siri settings on your phone.
When you go through this training with any device, you’ll be prompted to say the wake word for your device: “Alexa,” “Hey Google,” or “Hey Siri.” As you do this, think about how your voice inflects when you actually call on the assistant. I’ve caught myself using very different tones during training than I do in everyday life, which hindered my devices in the past. They’ve gotten better at understanding me over time, but the more you set an assistant up for success, the easier your life will be.
There’s one other thing you can do if you’re an Echo user: tell your assistant it’s made a mistake. Just head to “Activity” in the sidebar of the Alexa app, find the command, and tap “More.” Under “Did Alexa do what you wanted?” specify whether it did or didn’t, which will help improve future responses. Sadly, Google and Siri do not have this feature.
Give devices and people unique names
One of my more frequent frustrations happens when I try to turn on a light, a ceiling fan, or another smart home device and my assistant targets the wrong one—or asks, “Wait, which one?”
After a while, I realized many of my devices had names that were probably too similar to one another, and giving them each unique names meant voice assistants could easily tell them apart. For example, instead of naming each light “Bedroom Light One,” “Bedroom Light Two,” and “Bedroom Light Three”—which would get jumbled up when I said “Turn the bedroom lights on”—I now have “Master Ceiling Light,” “Whitson’s Nightstand Lamp,” and “Kathleen’s Lamp” in a group called “Bedroom Lights.” These are distinct enough that I rarely run into problems anymore. You should also make sure to delete old or duplicate smart home devices from your assistant’s settings—if they’re still looking for devices that aren’t there, they’re going to return an error.
You can similarly adjust your contact list to avoid problems when trying to call your friends. Both Google and Siri allow you to add phonetic names to your contacts, so you can ensure that when you say “Call shee-la,” it knows you mean your Irish friend Sile Murphy. You can also add nicknames to contacts to help differentiate them from others with the same name—or if you want to say something like “Call Mom” and have it work properly without renaming the contact entirely.
Don’t talk like a robot
It’s funny to watch my family and friends interact with their voice assistants. Some speak to them normally (“Alexa, add detergent to my grocery list”), while others talk like a caveman (“Alexa… add grocery list item… detergent”). It’s easy to understand why the latter would be instinctive, especially if you grew up with primitive voice recognition tech, but these devices are designed to understand natural speech patterns. So try to avoid talking like a robot and speak more conversationally—you might find it works better.
Of course, voice assistants aren’t really people, so there are still some conversational commands they may not understand, especially if you leave out important information. For example, if you’re looking to control a third-party device, Alexa usually knows what you want, but if it fails, you may have to say exactly what you mean. For example, “Alexa, turn the volume up,” will turn the assistant’s own volume up, so you’ll need to say “Alexa, ask Harmony to turn the volume up” in order to crank the sound on your Harmony Hub-equipped TV.
Remember, if your assistant just can’t seem to understand a request, the best thing you can do is rephrase it. If you just keep saying the same thing louder and more slowly, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed.