Why would you choose the new Google Pixel smartphone over one of the many competitors out there, including the iPhone? Google’s betting big that the new “Google Assistant” feature in the Pixel will make it a compelling choice. That’s a bet which might not pay off due to usability issues.
I’ve been using the Pixel for about four days now. If you’re looking for a review of the phone overall versus other phones, I’d suggest visiting Techmeme after reading this. There will be any number of critiques out now that dissect camera quality, look-and-feel, battery life and more.
My focus is on the Google Assistant part of the phone. Google Assistant is an evolution of the Google Search that so many have used and depended on over the years. Google Assistant wants to interact with you, offering suggestions and potentially taking actions on your behalf. It wants to be a smarter Siri, if you will.
Google Assistant is voice-only
Unfortunately, Google’s first mistake in trying to beat Apple’s own Siri assistant was repeating a flaw Siri already has. You can only speak to the Google Assistant, on the Pixel phone.
That’s right. You can’t type a question into Google Assistant. It only accepts voice searches. There’s no search box offered:
Some might think that makes sense, that our brave new mobile world is all about speaking to our phones. Those people aren’t sitting on my couch telling me to shut up as I ask Google Assistant a question. My family is. Those people aren’t in a store wanting to do a discreet price check. They’re not in a crowded room, where they don’t really want to disturb others with their searches.
Not being able to type into Google Assistant is weird to me. It immediately turns Google Assistant into a feature that I feel I can use only some of the time, not all of the time. If I’m not alone in feeling this way, then Google has hobbled what’s supposed to be the star feature of its phone, one that it proudly pitches on the Pixel website:
But wait! Why’s voice-only search a problem with Google Assistant if it’s not (so much) with Apple’s Siri? I would submit it’s because Google Assistant is trying to go beyond what Siri does, to give you a Siri-like experience for a much wider range of searches than Siri can handle well.
In short, I don’t think most people are turning to Siri for complex queries in the way they turn to Google. Siri’s good at telling me the weather, sports scores and other relatively simple things that can be answered directly. But for a more complicated search, I’m personally more likely to resort to using Google where I know exactly the rich experience I’m going to get. In contrast, I don’t know how Siri’s going to respond, so I don’t waste my time with it for complicated queries.
That is, of course, a focus group of one — myself, which can be dangerous. I also do know that there are plenty of people who will turn to Siri as their first choice for any type of search, complex or not. But I don’t think most people do that. I wish I did know, but we have remarkably little data about voice search from Apple or Google.
Google splits your search attention
You can, of course, type queries using the Google search bar on the Pixel. That’s the second big flaw. It means that Google has split my attention. Should I use Google Assistant or the Google search bar? When you’re trying to win, making things more complicated isn’t generally a successful solution.
Worse, the version of Android 7.1 that the Pixel runs actually hides the search box for no good reason. In the past, it was always there. Now, you have tap on the Google icon to open the box, then tap into the box to search:
In the screen shot above, on the left is how the search box looks on a Nexus 6P running Android 7 versus the search button on the Pixel. Using the button means taking two steps to search, previously something that was a single-step action.
Summoning Siri might be faster
Another flaw is that the hardware of the Pixel makes launching Google Assistant more awkward than invoking Siri on the iPhone.
With the iPhone, I can put my thumb on the home button, which reads my fingerprint and unlocks the phone, then press to ask Siri a question. One finger (well, thumb) does it all in an easy motion.
With the Pixel, I have to put a finger on the back sensor to unlock using my fingerprint, then use another finger to hold the software-only home button on the Pixel to activate Google Assistant. It’s more work. Yes, not that much more work, but it is less convenient.
Both phones, of course, will respond to hotwords. You can say “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” to get them to do a search, assuming you’ve already unlocked them. With the Pixel, this means you can avoid that second finger movement — just unlock and say “OK Google” to get the Google Assistant going. If someone gets used to doing this, the two finger complexity is solved. But the issue with voice-only searching is not.
Will ‘all-in’ on voice search work?
It’s absolutely possible that I’m making way too much of these issues. As I said, a focus group of one is dangerous. In six months, I could be amazed at how wrong I’ve gotten it. However, what limited stats we do have suggest that it’s not “all in” on all voice-searching.
Earlier this year, Google said that 20 percent of searches on Android phones within the US are done by voice. In other words, 80 percent — the vast majority of searches — are NOT done by voice.
We also don’t know to what degree those 20 percent of voice “searches” are actually action requests like “set my alarm.” When I asked, Google didn’t provide any clarification on this statistic. There’s evidence Google’s hinted at to suggest that a large chunk of those aren’t searches at all but instead are action requests.
Perhaps voice search for actual queries (rather than actions) is low because we just haven’t had the right interface or smart-enough assistant. Maybe Google Assistant as integrated into the Pixel is what we’ve been waiting for and will drive new behavior. Maybe teens who were found in 2014 to be more comfortable speaking searches will find this the future phone they’ve been waiting for:
But then again, maybe not. Maybe there are indeed significant times when people prefer to type. If so, I think Google Assistant not offering that option causes a split-attention problem that might actually drive people away from it and toward the regular Google search box they can always depend on.
If that happens, if people head for a regular Google search rather than Google Assistant, then why did they buy that expensive new Pixel phone with Google Assistant in the first place? They could have gone with any Android phone or even an iPhone with the Google search app on it.
Meanwhile, how well it works…
Beyond the user interface issues is the deeper one of how well Google Assistant actually works versus a regular Google search. My experience so far is mixed. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes a regular search would be better. The uncertainly makes me want to go back to “safe” Google search each time.
I’ll come back with a deeper assessment after I’ve had more time to use it with my regular real-world needs. But my colleague, Greg Sterling, has been having similar feelings, which he recaps in today in an article on our Search Engine Land sibling site.
Google Assistant beyond the Pixel
For its part, Google told me it’s starting with voice-only conversations with Google Assistant on the Pixel. That suggests to me that a type-to-search option might eventually come, though Google itself did not say nor promise that.
As for why the search box was turned into a button, Google gave me this statement:
With this latest iteration, we’ve made a number of changes to the design and UI — all as part of our goal to present Google’s more opinionated take on the overall user experience. As for the quick search box and other user interface changes, we’re carefully experimenting with these changes to assess user reaction and feedback.
Overall, I don’t think Google Assistant is the killer feature that will cause Pixels to fly off the virtual shelf, any more than I think people are buying iPhones simply because they love Siri. Both are nice to have. Both can be exceptionally helpful to particular individuals with particular needs. But neither feels like a deal-maker or deal-breaker.
Those who want Google Assistant without the price tag of a Pixel can, of course, simply get Google Allo for either Android or iOS. Google Assistant is built into that, including the ability to type your search in. You can use it just for the Google Assistant part, if you want. It’s not as convenient as with the Pixel, but it’s much cheaper.
The real place Google Assistant is likely to shine will be when Google Home ships. Voice search makes perfect sense for a hands-free device like Google Home, plus Google Assistant shows promise in answering more complex queries than the rival Amazon Echo can do.