Hear, hear! Here's to the woman behind making Alexa inclusive

Sarah Caplener - one of seven superwomen behind Alexa

Last month saw International Women's Day (8th March) celebrated in numerous articles and news stories around the world that helped highlight the fantastic and Colour photograph of Sarah Capleneroften futuristic work women are doing across all sectors - and tech is absolutely no exception. 

One excellent example is an article that chose to focus on the top seven women behind Amazon Alexa - but the one woman from this number that I would personally like to call out for her amazing work in the area of accessibility and inclusive design for the Amazon Echo is Sarah Caplener, senior manager for product management in the Alexa for Everyone team.

When she came to Amazon, Sarah Caplener never imagined she would be leading the Alexa for Everyone team that focuses on making Alexa as helpful, inclusive and useful as possible for older customers and those with disabilities. Since then the team has made several strides towards ensuring that the world's most popular smartspeaker isn't excluding those you may think would struggle; those who can't speak or can't hear.

"I am proud of the team we have built and the first features we have released: Tap to Alexa, an accessibility setting on Echo Show and Echo Spot that enables customers to interact with Alexa through touch or text input, and Alexa Captioning, which allows customers to see text on-screen for Alexa response. Together these features represented the first steps toward making smart speakers accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and have speech impairments."
- Sarah Caplener, senior manager for product management in the Alexa for Everyone team

There are now two models of Echo that have a screen; the Echo Show and Echo Spot. Having a screen means that additional information can be displayed such as the weather forecast, lyrics to songs, Youtube videos or steps to a recipe. 

Colour photo of the Echo Show screen showing the weather temperaturePhoto of the Echo Spot with Good morning its 6.30am message on the screen, current temperature and weather forecast

Alexa Captioning

Now, thanks to Alexa Captioning, these screens can also be used to display everything that is spoken out by the helpful assistant. Obvious when you think about it, but unique to the Echo to date. Other assistants serve up some information on-screen it's true, but certainly not a transcript of everything that's said. And of course, subtitles are also switched on for all video content whenever available. 

Suddenly a stunningly helpful device that centres around speech output is also open to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. And of course, it might also be great for those who need to use the A-lady in a noisy environment where her words would otherwise be lost in the hubbub - even if that noise is only temporary with the kids clattering, extractor fan thrumming and the blender buzzing.

Tap to Alexa

Similarly, a simple addition of allowing people to tap out inputs on a touchscreen rather than speaking them out loud means that people with a speech impairment aren't left behind. And once again (as we so often see with inclusive design) those changes to aid accessibility just end up increasing the flexibility and usefulness of the device for others too. Try talking to Alexa in those same noisy conditions mentioned above and you'll almost certainly struggle to be understood - but being able to tap out a command or choose an option with sticky fingers instead might be very welcome. Just remember to wipe the screen down afterwards.

So keep up the great work Sarah, along with all the other women and men behind the ever-improving features (both mainstream and accessibility-focused) of the amazing Amazon Echo. 

Am I a fan? Yes I am. Can the A-lady control a fan? Yes, of course she can - along with a myriad of other useful aspects of what Alexa can do, it can help those with really challenging impairments control not only their digital but physical lives too. Check out some of the many other smartspeaker-related articles we've written on this site to find out more.

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