Among the 500 million people who use Google Assistant, there probably aren’t too many who have embraced it more enthusiastically than I have.
Google Assistant powers the Lenovo Smart Display in my kitchen, the Sonos Beam soundbar in my living room, the Nest Mini speaker in the bedroom, and the Google Home speaker in my office. When I had a Google Pixel phone, I’d often squeeze it to bring up the Assistant, and after buying an iPhone last month, I immediately set up a Shortcut for activating Google Assistant through Siri.
I don’t just use Assistant for basic things like checking the weather or playing music, either. Google Assistant wakes my wife and me up in the morning and turns our bedroom lights off at night. It manages our shared grocery list and serves as an intercom for broadcasting messages throughout the house. I use it to set reminders and create calendar appointments in my office, and to get directions and make phone calls on my phone. I’ve even convinced my parents and sister to use Google Duo, so we can video chat through the Smart Display.
All of which is to say that, while I’m happy having Google Assistant as an ever-present helper, being a power user reveals a lot of weird behavior that most people probably won’t notice. And it makes me wonder how many folks at Google are using the product the same way.
I’m not talking about big technological hurdles, like making sure Google Assistant never mishears the “Hey Google” wake phrase or always has an answer to every question. Rather, I’m referring to the simple screwups that become obvious after using the product every day in all the ways Google says we should.
Has CEO Sundar Pichai, for instance, decked out his house in Google Home speakers and entrusted them to automate his life? After running into some of the following issues, I’m not so sure:
Although I’ve set up my fair share of Google Assistant devices by now, that doesn’t seem to have sunk in with Google. Whenever I add a new speaker, smart display, or Chromecast through the Google Home app, I have to walk through the same process of reentering my Wi-Fi credentials (the option to have Google store and reuse them never seems to work), approving terms of service, bypassing a free trial offer for Sirius XM, okaying the list of streaming services I’ve already connected, and watching (or skipping) a tutorial video. At some point, all of this stopped being useful and started to feel condescending.
It’s a relatively minor grievance, but it speaks to a larger issue: At times, Google Assistant seems to lack any kind of contextual awareness.
Multiroom audio hassles
Back in October, Google added a neat feature for transferring music from one speaker to another. If you’re listening on a Google Home in the kitchen, for instance, you can say, “Hey Google, play on my office speaker,” and playback will resume in the new location.
It’s a brilliant idea derailed by a major limitation: Music can only move between individual speakers, not speaker groups. When you’re finished getting ready in the bedroom, you can’t tell Google to bring the party to all the speakers on the main floor. Instead, you have to ask Google to stop playing music, then start a new music session on the other speaker group. The inverse is also true: If you tell Google to play music on a group of speakers, there’s no way to stop playback on a single speaker without turning off all the rest.
Maybe the size of Bay Area apartments precludes most Googlers from running into this issue. But I have to believe at least some Google executives have enough living space to use the multiroom audio features they’ve created and quickly realize where the blind spots are.
The recurring disclaimer
I was thrilled when Google announced last December that it would start syncing Assistant notes and lists to Google Keep and several third-party task managers, including Bring and Any.do. When the feature rolled out a few weeks later, I immediately connected Assistant to Google Keep and started using it for our family grocery list.
Google Assistant doesn’t seem to have picked up on the pattern, though, because at least once per day, it responds to new list items with the following disclaimer: “By the way, lists that you have already created in the Google Assistant will not be accessible in Google Keep. However, from now on, any new lists you create will be available in Google Keep.”
This cumbersome reminder becomes overkill the third, fourth, or 15th time you’ve heard it. But maybe the issue is that no one at Google seems to care much about Google Keep, either.
Setting up Google Keep for shared grocery lists had another unintended consequence: Suddenly my wife could no longer activate any of the smart home routines we’d set up. Whereas “Hey Google, goodnight” would turn off the lights and stop any audio playback for me, my wife would only get a cutesy “sleep tight” message in response. There’s no way to share routines with other family members, so the only solution was to rebuild the routines from scratch using the Google Home app on her phone.
Mind you, this change came without any explanation or warning, and I was only able to piece it together because all our routines still worked in response to my own voice. Those who are less tech-savvy would probably just give up.
The recurring disclaimer, part two
One of Google Assistant’s best features is the ability to broadcast messages to other speakers as an alternative to yelling across the house. We use this feature all the time in the Newman household, yet Google still thinks we need routine tutorials on how it works. “By the way, if you want to send a reply, just let me know,” the Assistant says after sending a broadcast, usually about once per day. It’s another strange case of hand-holding that probably wouldn’t exist if people at Google regularly used this feature themselves.
The curious case of Sling TV
Back in December, Google announced that Assistant would integrate with Sling TV, so you could launch live TV channels by voice on smart displays and Chromecast devices.
I’ve never succeeded in getting this feature to work, but that’s not why I bring this up. After about a few dozen back-and-forth emails with a Google spokesperson in which we futilely attempted to troubleshoot the problem, I received an email blast from Sling TV, informing me as a customer that the feature had actually been broken for a couple of weeks, and apologizing for the inconvenience.
The fact that no one at Sling or Google seemed to notice a newly announced feature failing to work for several weeks only has one plausible explanation: No one was actually using it.
While all this has gone on, I’ve had other issues that are even harder to explain, like the two-week period where Google Assistant refused to read my calendar, or the period where it would no longer recite the weather during our wake-up Routine. There’s also the paradox of Google Play Music, in which the Assistant always plays full albums on shuffle and playlists in order.
Of course, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek in suggesting that no one at Google has experienced these issues themselves. The more likely explanation is that voice assistants are inherently complex, with a sprawling number of functions executed through endless natural-language phrasings. Some problems—even ones that may seem obvious—are going to fall down the priority list or slip through the cracks entirely.
But when Google Assistant is flailing around with music playback or acting forgetful, it’s easier to assume that no one in charge is paying sufficient attention.