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Payments and e-commerce on Voice Assistants: Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana

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State of e-commerce on voice assistant

2016 and 2017 are the pivotal moments when we start seeing a new tech trend gradually transition the industry from a ‘mobile-first’ to ‘AI-first’ mindset. As mobile app ecosystem reaches maturity, and consumers now experience an app-fatigue, start-ups and innovators are looking for the next disruptor.

In 2016 we saw at F8 and Microsoft //build, the rise of chatbot as the new app. What we slowly realize though, is that text input is too tedious to get stuff done compared to mobile app, and bots aren’t as discoverable as mobile app. As a result, consumers still used messenging platform mostly to talk with real humans, and the bot ecosystem dwindled.

In 2017, catching the AI wave, we witnessed “conversation as a platform” resurrected through voice assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant. Despite the initial lackluster experience, Alexa slowly creeps into our house as a music player, radio, and home automation assistant. Then Google caught up with Google Assistant and launched Google Home. Today Alexa/Echo enjoyed the first-mover advantage with a dominating 70% of market share compared to 23% from Google, and has 10,000+ skills in its directory. In 2017, Skills has become the new App.

Now, the ultimate goals for Skills developer is probably to make money off it. So how does monetization work in these new voice-assistant platforms?

Alexa

Unsurprisingly commerce is a built-in capability in Alexa that allows you to buy from… the ‘Everything Store’. When you make a voice purchase request, Alexa searches through Prime-eligible items from your order history and Amazon’s Choice items, and make use of your 1-click setting to complete the payments.

Making commerce very efficient to buy from Amazon comes at a cost though. On purpose or by accident, Alexa Skills does not offer any native payment function. As a result, third party Skills such as Domino Pizza needs to handle the checkout process without much help from Amazon…

  • Me: Alexa, tell Domino’s Pizza to to buy me a Hawaiian pizza
  • Alexa: Sure, what size do you want
  • Me: a Large one
  • Alexa: OK, let me finish your order
  • Alexa: Sorry, we cannot complete your card. Please save your credit card on Domino’s Pizza website…
  • Me: ghhh…

Other skills such as WingShop, Grubthat do checkout often do not have any menu selection, and only allow the customer to re-order his previous order. That user case ignores the fact that customers often want to have something different from what they ordered before, and most people often forget what they ordered.

Experience on ordering on Alexa

At this stage, ordering on Alexa is pretty much like making order on a phone: it is as tedious as speaking to a real person but then, and it lacks the ‘intelligence’ that understands the complexity of your situation or order, and makes customized decision that address your need. I believe that with the advance in AI, the ordering experience will be much better, but at this point, commerce on Alexa falls short of expectation.

Unless you’re buying from Amazon, of course 🙂

But then, you will already have your dash buttons, Echo Look, Echo Dot….

What I like in Alexa

  • Simple order with Amazon can be done completely in voice
  • Has the most commerce-related skills in ecosystem

What can be better

  • Lack of payment support makes with third party skills hampers any meaningful checkout experience on Alexa
  • Alexa needs to be more intelligent in helping a buyer go through the checkout

What I expect to happen in Alexa in next year

  • Amazon Echo Show will have checkout built-in.
  • Amazon will follow Google / Microsoft by providing its own purchase API for third party skills on Echo Show

Google Assistant

While most people focused on Google’s forte efforts in artificial intelligence, in a few years, we will look at 2017 I/O as a pivotal moment for Google Payments: Android Pay announced partnership with PayPal, and launched W3C Web Payments on Android and announce partnership with Shopify and Alipay. But beyond Android Pay (mobile) and Web Payments (web), the next likely platform shift will likely be voice assistant (not bot), and Google is positioning itself as the de-factor aggregator by infusing commerce activity into its AI agent through the Transaction API on Google Actions.

At this point, the Transaction API is still in developer preview, and no merchant has launched a live Google Action yet. So I spent a few days on learning deploy Google Action, walked through the Transaction sample on github, and deployed the action on Firebase.

Developer perspective

Because of my work, I already had some experiences in Android Pay and Web Payments on Chrome. Transactions API for Google Action extends naturally from Android Pay. If you are already familiar with Android Pay on Web Payments or in-app purchase, then likely you will already have signed up via one of the processors that Android Pay supports: Braintree, Stripe, or Vantiv. When you integrate with Web Payments on your website, Android Pay help you to manage the checkout experience by helping your buyer selects his payment and shipping info, and generates a ‘gateway’ payment token and your can pass to your processors, to charge the buyer and complete the checkout.

Below is a code snippet from Google’s documentation, showing you the structure of the payment request on Chrome:

var supportedInstruments = [
{supportedMethods: [ ANDROID_PAY ],
data: {
merchantId: '02510116604241796260',
environment: 'TEST',
allowedCardNetwork: [ 'AMEX', 'MASTERCARD', 'VISA', 'DISCOVER' ],
paymentMethodTokenizationParameters: {
tokenizationType: 'GATEWAY_TOKEN',
parameters: {
'gateway': 'stripe',
'stripe:publishableKey': 'pk_live_fD7ggZCtrB0vJNApRX5TyJ9T',
'stripe:version': '2016-07-06'
}}}}];
//Web Payment on Chrome — payment option request example

Google Actions’ Transactions API accepts the same “Gateway Token” model and basically you can copy/paste your Payment Request code to Google Actions and be done in a few minutes! Below is the equivalent payment request sample in Transactions API.

app.askForTransactionDecision(order, {
// These will be provided by payment processor, like Stripe,
// Braintree, or Vantiv
tokenizationParameters: {
"gateway": "stripe",
"stripe:publishableKey": (app.isInSandbox() ? "pk_test_key" : "pk_live_key"),
"stripe:version": "2017-04-06"
},
cardNetworks: [
app.Transactions.CardNetwork.VISA,
app.Transactions.CardNetwork.AMEX
],
prepaidCardDisallowed: false,
deliveryAddressRequired: false
});
//Google Action transactions — payment option request example

Checkout User Experience

As a pixel user, this is the first time I really started using Google Assistant. Going through the sample checkout flow, I was quite impressed at how Google Assistant structure a checkout through a conversation-driven experience.

Typically in an online commerce a buyer needs to select a shipping address. Instead of presenting a checkout page, the way Google Assistant handles this is to explicitly ask me to select the delivery address from my Google account, similar to how a human agent would help me to complete a purchase on a phone.

After I select the address, then I get to see the entire order and my payment method, and just say “place order”, authenticate with fingerprint or device password, to complete the checkout.

For the happy path at least, user is kept in context in the entire flow. I am not able to add a payment method within the flow, but Google Assistant provides a link to my Google account to set up any payment or address information. In fact, Google prohibits an Action to redirect the user to another site to complete the purchase. (see Google Actions’ policy). Since the entire experience is kept within Google app, it makes it easy to be ported to Google Home, as soon as google is able to provide an efficient voice-based order review.

What I like in Google Assistant

Developer/merchant

  • Coherent developer story with Android Pay
  • A lightweight onboarding process
  • Integration with api.ai confirms Google ambition to infuse NLP and AI into every

End-user

  • Tight integration with your Google account and Google payments means I can
  • Google got it right that the user needs to be kept in-context and not be redirected to another place during checkout.

What can be better

  • Google Assistant feels more like a chat bot than an assistant
  • Lack of voice support in the order confirmation card.
  • Changing or adding a payment card is not well supported.

What I expect to happen in Google Actions in next year

  • Google to perfect the voice interaction in Google app, and enable Transaction API in Google Home as well
  • Google to infuse this Transaction capability into Google ad and checkout experience, on Android devices
  • Tighter integration with Android OS to enabling adding payment instruments
  • Blurring between the Android Pay brand and Google Payments, with Google Payments slowly taking over the brand recognition.

Microsoft Cortana

Not many people realize that Cortana also has the capability to invoke a checkout experience. In //build 2017 we launched Bot Payments on Microsoft Bot Framework that allows a developer to initiate a checkout. Since Cortana is a channel supported by Bot Framework, it is naturally support payments.

A bot developer can integrate with Payment Request API in Bot Framework, and offer a checkout experience for his customers that is tightly integrate with Microsoft account. Similar to Google Assistant, a buyer on Cortana can complete the checkout with the address and payments stored in his Microsoft account.

We are still working on how to improve this experience, and if you have any ideas, please reach out to us at our Stack Overflow forum.

Where is Siri?

Apple in WWDC made an announcement adds money transfer via Apple Pay in iOS 11. Noyes Payment Blog has a much better analysis of the economic benefits that I refer you to read. What is unclear yet, is how this is related to Siri, and how much Apple believes in Siri as a intelligent agent to help you complete tasks such as checkout.

But since Siri remains a ‘closed’ system, and its app ecosystem lacks a conversation engine that can understand conversation like Api.ai or LUIS, I am doubtful we will see much more advance from Apple in this area.

Summary

  • Merchant ecosystem through voice assistant is in an early “crawl” phase, and the ecosystem has not been created yet.
  • Amazon Alexa is likely continue focusing on commerce with the ‘Everything’ store and optimize the experience through 1-click.
  • As a result, third party Skills that do commerce needs to handle the entire checkout, and the experience is lackluster, particular in managing address and payments.
  • Google Assistant provides the smoothest checkout experience. But it still requires a screen to help user with more complex tasks, such as review order, select address, etc.


Payments and e-commerce on Voice Assistants: Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana was originally published in Chatbots Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Chatbots Magazine

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