Google Home Usability Flaw Needs to be Fixed

The author’s update at the end of yesterday’s ComputerWorld story on Google Home included this comment:

Yonatan Zunger — the head of infrastructure for Google’s Assistant team — confirmed that this is considered a “known issue.” He said that while he can’t talk about specific plans or timelines, his team is “definitely aware” of it and “want[s] to resolve it stat.”

Oops. So, what is this glaring flaw that JR Raphael uncovered? Google Home’s that ship Friday will be tied to a single user account. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It does when you go beneath the surface just a little bit.

Everyone Has Access to the Account Owner’s Information

A big selling point for Google Home is that it integrates with your other Google activity which for many people includes calendar, mail, YouTube and more. The idea that Google Assistant can serve you through the Home device, mobile apps and even natively within your smartphone is appealing to many users. Google can then serve as a smart assistant that is always with you, knows you and is always ready to help. If you set up your Google Home to connect your accounts and capture full utility from the device, it means everyone within speaking range can also access this information. That may not be ideal.

What if you have guests? Do you want them or your children to ask Google to read your emails to them? What if your kids like a YouTube channel that you do not? Do you know that their use of Google Home to access YouTube will influence the service’s suggestion algorithm for you? What if your are a physician and there is private health information in an email to you and anyone in your household can access it. That would be a clear HIPPA violation. This account access flaw brings up many questions related to privacy and simple convenience. It is surprising that Google missed this given that Amazon’s Alexa enables account switching.

The more perplexing realization is that Google actually has account switching, but limited it to music subscriptions. Why stop there? You can, of course, turn off access to your personalized Google services, but that undercuts a key selling feature of the product.

Suggestion: Account Switching and Incognito Usage

Google Chrome already knows how to address these issues. It enables users to change accounts for a personalized experience. It also enables them to access a private experience through incognito browsing. Both are needed features for home-based personal voice assistants.

Consider at minimum that in many households multiple adults would like the opportunity to use Google Home for personalized services such as email, calendar, traffic and other things that are person-specific. Account switching is a must unless the expectation is that it is just a device for home automation and entertainment. If it is a true personalized voice assistant that is placed in a multi-user setting, the software must account for it.

The other suggestion that I’d also like Amazon pick up is the concept of an incognito user. Today, Amazon’s Alexa enables you to switch accounts, but anyone can do it. Alexa enables me to switch to my wife’s account and vice versa. That isn’t a problem in our household, but if we have guests it may be preferable to have an incognito status and a pin to switch between accounts. Alexa has far less personal information, so this isn’t an issue for most users. However, Google’s main selling point is personalization based on how much information it has on users already. It only makes sense for them to lead on this topic.

Kudos to JR Raphael for writing about this issue and getting it out in the open. Multi-user home based voice assistants are going to be commonplace soon, but there is still a user experience learning curve today for device manufacturers. I suspect this one will be addressed quickly.

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