Elections are not new to either Amazon or its virtual assistant Alexa, but the depth which it ended up covering the Indian elections over the past few months was unprecedented even by its standards.
“I was really pleased with the way the team covered the election in India, both in terms of all the very fine grained detail plus all the value adds like candidate details and candidate backgrounds,” says David Hardcastle, Director, Alexa Domains – Information, Amazon.
Hardcastle, who leads everything to do with the knowledge side of Alexa, adds that it was a first for Amazon to integrate these into their election experience. Speaking to indianexpress.com over phone, Hardcastle explains that while they have covered polls in other markets, the mechanics and structure are different. “It’s a really interesting challenge for us actually, in the design of the ontology and how we design the domain of the data. Because at a very high level, it’s a pretty similar stuff that’s going on.
“But actually it’s all in the detail. So understanding how constituencies relate to governments, and how votes in different places either cascade up or, in some countries, you reach a majority, and then you get everything. There are all these different mechanics that you have got to be able to explain to customers,” Hardcastle explains, adding how the Alexa team has now “getting pretty good at that”.
Alexa is now used more widely in India since its launch a couple of years back. The virtual assistant is available in at least 16 different devices and even as a smartphone app across platforms. While there are lot of things common across the world for events like elections, sports and even awards, they have also got lots of things that are different. “So we keep adding these new rules.”
Hardcaslte adds, “One of the challenges we have, in our knowledge, is that it’s just so broad that there’s different things that you can ask about. And there are lots of different components to getting it right. So we have to work hard to understand different actions and map back to the right texts.”
For instance, people use different vocabularies to ask the same thing. “That two by two, which means two times two in the US, UK means two divided by to India. So that’s not something you want to get wrong in the understanding.” He says this is not a simple as taking a website and localising it by changing all the strings to be in a different language, “there is a lot of culture and context”.
Amazon also knows the importance of cricket for success in India. And this is where it employed another unique approach. “So one of the things that actually the team did here for cricket was they actually went and sat with customers, watching cricket on the TV, listening to cricket on the radio, and just being immersed in the conversation about cricket at home.”
During the ICC World Cup, Alexa has new features like notify for important matches, giving users a reminder before start of the game. “We don’t have enough instrumentation to be able to figure out where we’re not good enough for our customers. And so we do spend time trying to measure that and analysing that data,” Hardcastle says. He adds that the important part of being customer obsessed is being self aware about where our customers would like us to be better.