Automated delivery is still a thing of the future for most consumers

At this year’s Smart Kitchen Summit, Amazon’s Alexa Director Charlie Kindel said that while the last decade was defined by mobile devices and touch screens, the next decade would belong to voice as the emergence of highly-capable natural language interfaces like Alexa became mainstream. “We are,” he proclaimed, “entering the era of the Voice User Interface (VUI)”.

While I agree that voice will become an ever more important interface in coming years, I don’t believe physical interfaces are going anywhere. In fact, I think one physical interface in particular – the button – will be just as important a decade from now as it is today.

So why do I believe in the boring old button? In part because boring usually means simple, and there’s nothing more simple than a one-function button. Whether it’s the alarm clock snooze button or the brew button on your coffee maker, simple physical interfaces like this usually provide the most direct route to initiate an action, especially compared with the almost inexhaustible variations of commands and functions available through something like Alexa.

Don’t believe in the importance of buttons? Just imagine having to say “Alexa, shut the alarm off” at 5 AM after a late night instead of just slamming your snooze button in hangover-induced rage.

All of which brings us to Dash. Introduced a day before April Fool’s Day in 2015, it turned out the button was no joke, as the button (and the associated Dash Replenishment Service) represented an effort by Amazon to bring point-of-consumption ordering to the home and into the kitchen. ‘Why wait for consumers to go to the Amazon website?’ Amazon seemed to be asking with the Button, when they could move the point of replenishment and reordering to the actual point of consumption?

Ingenious in a way, but a year and a half after its introduction, it’s worth asking how the Button has done. While Amazon itself doesn’t release data, data from a survey of Dash users show moderate engagement at best. According to Slice Intelligence, research done in the spring of this year show that only half of folks who had a button used it.

While the low usage doesn’t seem to have discouraged Amazon about the broader Dash effort, it certainly seems announcements about new Dash buttons have slowed as of late. Lately most Dash announcements come in the form of new Dash Replenishment Service deals, as well as in the form of a the second generation Dash wand, a product that may gain new life now that its freed from the shackles of Amazon Fresh.

So as Alexa and era of the voice interface comes into focus, does the Dash – and connected buttons in general – have a place in the connected kitchen and broader smart home?

The answer is yes, but probably not in its current form.

The reality is the idea of brand-specific buttons (which is what Amazon Dash is) is too limiting. Instead, Amazon needs to make all Dash buttons universal single-function order/action machines.  In other words, they need to make them programmable, but unlike the AWS IoT button they’ve made available to those willing to go through lots of pain and suffering, Amazon needs to make one for consumers, not developers. In other words, they need an order-anything Dash button for the average Joe.

The reasons Amazon should move to universal buttons are both practical and strategic. From a practical standpoint, a Dash button for one specific product is too limiting for most consumers. I understand Amazon’s original vision was to bring connected ordering and allegiance to specific brand partners, but the reality is preferences change and consumers don’t want to be locked into specific products, often at higher prices.

I learned this lesson first hand. I was an early Dash button buyer, but the Izze beverage button I bought is now useless since my kids have moved on from the fizzy fruit drink. But if I could now re-program it to order, say, coffee or energy bars, I’d do it.

From a strategic standpoint, while limiting Dash buttons to single products likely makes the large brand conglomerates happy, it creates an artificial constraint around Dash button deployment. It also limits the data and insights they get. Imagine the unparalleled insight into reordering and consumption of consumables around the home Amazon would get with a order-anything button. Not only that, they’d also get insights into other types of behavior besides just shopping if the button could be used as a more smart home and kitchen interface.

At some point down the road Amazon may move on from the Button. After all, they are increasingly moving Dash into devices and, now that they are giving the Wand second life with a refresh and access to the entire Amazon catalog, they may see Dash itself – or maybe they’ve always seen it this way – as a stop gap.

But the button lover in me isn’t worried since, after all, there are other do-anything buttons out there. And who knows, maybe after a while I’ll get the hang of this voice interface thing after all.

Image credit: Dan Malouf

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