Staples brings Watson to digital office assistants

Oct 31, 2016

Tom Ryan

With the help of artificial intelligence-based IBM Watson, Staples is testing a digital assistant that let’s small and medium-size businesses order products, track shipments and potentially handle many more needs.

The Staples Easy System features a circular “Easy” button — a bit larger than a hockey puck —designed to sit on a desk. Pressing the button elicits a query: “Please tell me what you need?” Customers voice their answers, such as “blue pens” or “Post-it notes” to reorder products, or ask questions, such as “I need to check on my order.” In addition to the button, customers can use a mobile app, which can also respond to voice communication. Text and e-mail options are also available.

Watson’s cognitive capabilities along with Staples’ own internal personalization APIs will help the Staples Easy System learn more about each business’s preferences over time, including preferred products and quantities. Eventually, the system will make recommendations based on the customer’s needs.

Beyond reordering, the integration of additional Watson-related APIs is expected to support tasks such as booking a flight, requesting carpet cleaning, ordering flowers or making dinner reservations. The Easy Button’s “Internet of Things” capabilities could power other applications as well, allowing the system to communicate with other smart devices, like a printer that tells the button when it’s low on toner.

“We want to be the assistant’s assistant,” Staples’ chief digital officer Faisal Masud said last week at the IBM World of Watson conference, according to Computerworld.

In July, Macy’s began testing a mobile tool that enables consumers to get answers to in-store shopper questions from an AI platform developed by Watson. But Staples Easy System appears to be the first application of Watson with a digital assistant.

In homes, neither Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home nor Apple Siri are yet making recommendations based on learnings from users, but advances are coming. Amazon is working on incorporating emotional cues into Alexa’s responses as well as applying the user’s previous comments to subsequent interactions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How much demand do you see for digital personal assistants supporting reorders and other workplace needs? How would you compare the demand for digital assistants at work versus home?


“As of today, I see this technology being far more popular at home than it will be at work, but work applications will follow … and rapidly.”

Ryan Mathews

“Customers will underestimate Watson’s power at first, but they’ll soon realize that it’s akin to talking to an expert.”

Cathy Hotka