Post updated: 9/15/18 – For a few weeks now it’s been touch and go where Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities are concerned, and a lot of consumers are getting frustrated. Why is Alexa hard of hearing lately, and what can you do about it?
After weeks of people complaining about too many false wakes (remember all those click-baity “creepy laugh” stories?), many are now reporting it’s suddenly become harder than usual to wake Alexa. Some others are saying Alexa’s having much more trouble than usual responding to simple, routine requests.
Amazon’s Alexa engineers are constantly applying minor tweaks on Amazon’s end between the major software revisions we’re aware of in order to refine Alexa’s understanding and responsiveness, and it’s not surprising that all those false wake complaints prompted a change.
What Can You Do Right NOW?
It’s very important that these issues are reported to Amazon (see next section, below), but there are some steps you can take right now, on your own, to improve the situation.
1. Use keywords whenever possible.
If the issue is that Alexa seems to wake okay, but then returns an error when you make a request, try repeating your request with one or more keywords thrown in. For example:
Instead of “play KROQ”, try “play radio station KROQ”, or “play KROQ on TuneIn”, or “play radio station KROQ on Tunein”.
Instead of “read my book”, try “read my Audible book”, “read my Audible book [book title],” or “read my Kindle book [book title]”. Note that Alexa can only read Kindle books that have Text to Speech (TTS) enabled. You can find out whether or not TTS is enabled on the book’s product page, in the details block where you find publisher information, book length and similar information.
Instead of “play Eighties Pop”, try “play my playlist Eighties Pop,” or “play the station Eighties Pop on Prime Music,” or “play Eighties Pop from Amazon Music.”
You get the idea. If you can specify the type of content and its source, Alexa will have an easier time figuring out what you want.
2. Be sure to use launch words with skills.
Amazon does not have any rule against duplicate skill names or launch phrases (also known as “invocation” phrases), and Amazon engineers sometimes release new Easter eggs that duplicate a pre-existing skill’s launch phrase. The only way to be sure you’re getting the skill you’re trying to open and not an Easter egg or a different skill is to use a launch word and correct skill invocation phrase.
Instead of “make me smile,” try “Open make me smile,” “launch make me smile,” or “start make me smile”.
3. Follow Amazon’s own tips.
Amazon has some suggestions of its own for what to do when it seems like Alexa’s suddenly ignoring you. From Amazon’s Alexa Doesn’t Understand You help page:
Place your Alexa device in an ideal location
Make sure your Alexa device is at least eight inches away from walls or other objects that may cause interference (like microwave ovens or baby monitors). If your Alexa device is on the floor, move it to a higher location.
Make sure there is no background noise when you speak to Alexa. Speak naturally and clearly to Alexa.
Repeat your question or request. Rephrase your question or make it less general. For example, there are many cities around the world called “Paris.” If you want to know the weather in Paris, France, say, “What’s the weather like in Paris, France?”
Check the Alexa app to see what Alexa heard. On the Home screen, select Learn more at the bottom of the interaction card. You can read what Alexa heard, listen to your request, or provide feedback.
US Readers: Consider Creating An Alexa Voice Profile*
You and each user in your home can create a voice profile to teach Alexa your voice. When you then interact with your compatible devices, Alexa creates a personalized experience across supported features.
To learn more, go to Alexa Voice Profiles.
LME Editor’s Note: hopefully this option will soon be rolled out to non-US regions as well.
*Since each individual’s speech patterns are somewhat unique, even among those who speak the same native language, setting up an Alexa voice profile can go a long way toward helping Alexa more accurately interpret your voice commands. For example, I might pronounce “Durham” as dur-um, someone else might say dur-hum, and a third person might say durm. By completing one or more Voice Training sessions, you get to teach Alexa your specific speech patterns.
Alexa’s Getting Smarter, But You Need To Tell On Her When She’s Not
Being a programmer myself I know that any software change can introduce a new, previously unanticipated problem. There’s only so much testing Amazon can do and it’s pretty much inevitable that sometimes, fixing one thing breaks something else that doesn’t come to the developers’ attention until certain consumers with the right set of circumstances report a problem.
Key takeaway: Amazon doesn’t know about these problems, and can’t fix them, unless consumers report them.
Call “Mayday” to reach Amazon’s Alexa tech support, so you can report the problem.
Say the wake word followed by the word “mayday” and Alexa will explain how to get Amazon tech support to call you and offer their help with any Alexa-related problem you’re having.
If the issue is that you can’t get Alexa to respond to you at all, go to the Help & Feedback page in the Alexa app—if you don’t have the mobile version installed, you can access it online at https://alexa.amazon.com (UK readers, https://alexa.amazon.co.uk)—and select the Call Us option. From there, fill out the form, enter your phone number and Amazon will call you.
These ‘growing pains’ periods are par for the course with Alexa. When they occur, just try to remember what an amazing piece of high tech wizardry Alexa is and be sure to report any issues to Amazon.