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How the Google Assistant masters conversations—and you can, too

Heading home for the holidays? Here’s hoping it’ll be a joyous reunion with friends and family, with plenty of cookies to go around. But if you’ve already been dreading those questions from your great-aunt about your love life, consider the ways we teach the Assistant to have natural conversations—it’ll make the talk your great-aunt a little less dreadful.

I’m on the Assistant’s conversational design team, where we work to make your chats with the Google Assistant as pleasant as possible. I’ve been teaching computers how to talk for nearly 20 years, starting my career working on some of those automated phone systems you’ve probably dealt with when you lost a suitcase at the airport. (In my case on a recent trip to Norway, it took 10 of those phone calls to find that lost bag!)

In my years in the industry, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to make conversations work. And so has the Google Assistant.

Give just the right amount of information.

We’ve all had that one relative who keeps droning on about a boring topic at the dinner table, oblivious to the fact that half the room has dozed off. And sometimes we experience the opposite problem, where we ask someone a question and they don’t provide enough information. Like when I ask my son what time it is, and he responds, “Yes.”

To strike the right balance when we design conversations for the Google Assistant, we follow something called the Cooperative Principle, proposed by Paul Grice in the 1970s. His Maxim of Quantity means we shouldn’t talk too much, or too little.

Here’s an example of a conversation that follows the Maxim of Quantity, along with one that doesn’t.

Uncle Anthony: So, how is your first year of college going?
Me: Great! I’m taking four classes.  My favorite is called “Taking care of turtles in the 21st century.” Do you know what a turtle’s favorite food is?

Uncle Anthony: So, how is your first year of college going?|
Me: Great! I’m taking four classes. My favorite is called “Taking care of turtles in the 21st century.” Some turtles are carnivores, and some are vegetarian. Sea turtles even eat squid. Leatherback sea turtles can grow to 1000 pounds!
Uncle Anthony: Zzzzzzz….

Illustration by Kimberly Harvey, conversation designer, Google Assistant

Make it clear when it’s the other person’s turn to talk.

We use a variety of signals to let another person know when we’ve finished talking, and when it’s the next person’s turn to talk. For example, when I pause to take a bite of peppermint bark, that’s an opening for the other person to speak. When designing conversations with computers, which aren’t able to use things like eye contact and body language to determine when it’s their turn, it’s key to end each turn with a question or an instruction, to avoid confusion. And that tactic can work with your family, too, so you’re not always talking over one another.

Me: So I went to this awesome concert. Have you ever been to a concert?
Grandma: Yes, I went to see the Beach Boys in 1987. What a show! Who did you see, dear?
Me: Wow, how interesting. I went to a show called Punky Kittens.  

Me: So I went to this awesome concert. Have you ever been to a concert? I went--
Grandma Zara: Yes, I went to--
Me: --went to the greatest show the other day, and...
Grandma Zara: What?
Me: What?

Acknowledge the person you’re speaking with.

One of our most basic desires as humans is to be understood. We want to know the other person is hearing us correctly, like when you ask your brother to pass the green beans, not the gravy. One way the Assistant does this is by using something called “implicit confirmation.” This is how you let someone know they’ve been heard, and establish trust. Let’s see an example where, due to a misunderstanding, a cranberry crisis nearly occurs:

Me: Hey Joanne, I love (mumble mumble) cranberry sauce!|
Chef cousin who hates canned cranberry sauce: You like canned cranberry sauce?  
Me: Actually I said FRESH cranberry sauce…
Chef: Me too!
Crisis averted.)

Me: Hey Joanne, I love <mumble mumble> cranberry sauce!
Chef: What? I hate that stuff!
Me: Oh yeah? I don’t see why, you make it every year!

Only use visuals when they’re appropriate.

The Google Assistant is available on multiple types of devices, from the voice-only Google Home, to the voice-forward Home Hub, to the multi-modal mobile phone. Because of this, we need to consider when it’s most appropriate to introduce visuals, such as cards or carousels, to the conversation.

Our go-to design principle is to add visuals when they enhance the discussion, and not to let them overshadow the rest of the conversation. Try to keep this in mind when you’re sitting down with family and friends.

Me: I just came back from a trip to Costa Rica, where we saw some amazing monkeys. Here’s my favorite monkey picture! <shows 1 photo>
Everyone: Oooh! How cute!

Me: Who wants to see my slideshow of my cruise to Costa Rica? I have 350 photos. Let me find that one on the beach where I saw a monkey. In fact, I’ll show you all 50 of them!
Everyone: (Runs away.)

Get some practice with your Assistant.

Before you head out for the holidays, try having a few conversations with your Google Assistant and see if you can spot these great communication principles in action. We hope that by following some of these best practices, your holiday dinners will be more pleasant and relaxed.  

And if you’re looking for some fun things to do with your Google Assistant, try saying “Hey Google, talk to Santa” or “Hey Google, tell me a winter story.”

The latest AdMob updates: making more money with mobile app ads

We know app developers of all sizes need valuable and easy-to-use solutions to earn more from their apps. That’s why we’ve invested in providing tools that not only empower you to build sustainable revenue streams, but also make your job easier. 

Here are a few vital ways we help developers grow their businesses, along with a look at what’s new. 

Google’s advanced monetization technology

Earlier this year we introduced Open Bidding in beta, a new monetization model where all participating ad buyers compete simultaneously in one unified auction. Developers using Open Bidding are already seeing more ad revenue and less latency for their users. 

Today, we are excited to announce that the Open Bidding program now features eight advertising partners for mobile ad buying. In addition to OpenX, Index Exchange, Smaato, Tapjoy and AdColony, now Facebook Audience Network, AppLovin, and Rubicon Project are joining the ongoing beta. With these new partners, we're offering diverse sources of app advertising to compete for ad inventory in real time, driving even more revenue for app developers. 

"AdColony is excited to join forces with Google to move the app monetization ecosystem forward with Open Bidding. AdMob’s scale of advertiser demand and ease of integration provides a tremendous opportunity for app developers to drive more revenue and operational efficiency.”

- David Pokress, EVP Publishing & Account Management at AdColony

We’re continuing to add new features to Open Bidding based on feedback from our beta participants, including support for all ad formats like interstitial, rewarded, banner, which are all available today, and native, which will be added soon. 

In addition to asking for more formats and advertising demand, developers participating in our beta have also asked us for transparency into who is bidding on and buying their ad inventory. We’re pleased to announce that we'll be adding a new auction report that allows developers to understand how their different advertising partners are performing. Open Bidding Auction Reports will be available to beta participants early next year. 

While we’re paving the way for the next era of monetization technology, we also know that waterfall mediation* isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s why we’ve built Open Bidding to work seamlessly with waterfall mediation to maximize the value of every impression and simplify operations. Beta participants have noted the compatibility as a meaningful value-add. 

Get set up quickly with developer-first tools

Regardless of whether developers use waterfall mediation, Open Bidding, or both, we’re committed to delivering the best experience on our platform. We know onboarding processes can be painful and create extra work—but we’ve got a few new tools to help with that. 

AdMob’s new Mediation Test Suite beta makes it easier to test if your app is set up correctly to display ads, so you don’t miss out on revenue. Now, if you hit a snag with the SDK integration, you can test each individual network and instantly identify the source of the issue (e.g. SDK, adapter, credentials, etc.)—no more blindly troubleshooting issues and searching for the source. Once everything checks out, you’ll see an ad in the testing environment to confirm that the pipes are ready.

Another new beta feature is the ability to “warm up” your SDK adapters to reduce timeouts on the first ad request. Soon, you'll be able to initialize all SDK adapters in a single call to AdMob, ensuring all adapters are ready to go when the first ad is requested. 

Our goal is to make setup easier. And if you do get stuck, we have the resources and global support to help you move fast.

In addition to building better tools, we’re partnering with players across the ecosystem and moving to a more efficient model that enables developers to earn more from their apps. Stay tuned for more exciting announcements over the next few months. 

*Waterfall mediation uses historical revenue data to prioritize networks and call them one at a time. 

Holidays at Google

Helping families develop healthy digital habits with Chromebooks

Parents care deeply about helping their kids build a positive and healthy relationship with technology. Last year, we introduced the Family Link app to help parents stay in the loop with how their children are using Android devices. Laptops also play an important role at home, with just over 50% of kids between 6-12 sharing or owning a laptop device. Today we’re sharing more Family Link features that can help parents of kids who use Chromebooks, like setting time limits, managing the apps kids can download and more.

Chromebooks enable families to work, play, and learn on the same device. The Family Link app can help parents set some digital ground rules as their kids are exploring online on their Chromebooks.

Child view of Family Link on a Chromebook, and Parent view of Family Link on an Android device.

Keep an eye on screen time

It’s up to parents to decide the right amount of screen time for their kids. Family Link supports you by making it easy to set screen time limits and establish bedtime hours. Family Link also offers activity reports to show parents and kids how much time is spent on their favorite apps.

Guide kids to good content

It’s not just about how much time kids spend on their devices, it’s about the quality of that time as well. Family Link allows parents to customize a list of websites that kids can visit, and review and approve the apps they can download from Google Play, such as YouTube Kids or Google Play Books. Parents can also hide individual apps when necessary, and manage in-app purchases within apps already installed on the Chromebook.

Manage Google Accounts and Chromebooks from anywhere

Parents can also manage settings for their child’s Google account, and remotely lock supervised accounts on the Chromebook if necessary. This holds true whether the Chromebook is shared by the whole family, or is used only by the child.

These are just the latest features we’re rolling out to help families. As we continue to build new tools for families, please share your ideas and feedback with us, so we can learn how we can continue building features that matter to you.

Say “G’day” and “Cheerio” to new accents for your Google Assistant

Starting today, if you’re an English speaker in the U.S., you can choose between an Australian-accented voice and a British-accented voice for your Google Assistant across devices.

All of the features you use are still the same—like setting a timer, checking the weather and getting an overview of your commute—only now, your Assistant will speak with a new accent. Try asking “Hey Google, what’s the exchange rate from British pound to U.S. dollar?,” “Hey Google, what’s the capital of Australia?,” or “Hey Google, where can I get fish and chips nearby?”

These voices are built using DeepMind’s speech synthesis model WaveNet, which uses deep neural networks to generate raw audio waveforms—resulting in more realistic and natural-sounding voices for the Google Assistant.

To try out these new voices on your Assistant, navigate to “Settings” on your phone, tap on the “Assistant” tab, and select “Assistant voice.” You’ll now see two new voices that you can select, either “Sydney Harbour Blue” for the Australian voice, or “British Racing Green” for the British voice.

We hope you enjoy these new voices as much as we do. Cheers!

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