Many busy professionals dream about one day having the perfect digital assistant; a hand-held version of the computer on Star Trek’s Enterprise, complete with artificial intelligence, voice recognition, conversational skills, a perfect understanding of issued commands, and the ability to anticipate a user’s needs. Instead, we are left with Clippy, the animated paperclip we once encountered when using Microsoft Office. While intending to be helpful, Clippy’s intrusive nature and less than intuitive understanding of human motivation sent most Word users racing to click the “Don’t show me this tip again” checkbox, and it was eventually viewed as a failure by the company and discontinued.

While we don’t yet have mini Star Trek computers at our disposal, things have improved since Clippy haunted our screens. A number of software companies have developed digital assistants — programs or apps designed to function as personal information managers, schedulers, coordinators, and organizers. Many of us already have access to digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Now, and Amy—an email-based scheduling assistant. Here is a brief summary of the capabilities of each of these digital assistants:

  • Siri, one of the better known voice-controlled digital assistants is best at performing iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or Apple Watch operations such as providing weather information, sending texts, dictating emails, setting up calendar appointments, providing reminders, and performing searches for contacts, sports scores, business or retail locations, or general information queries.
  • Cortana, built into Windows 10, is a voice-controlled digital assistant similar to Siri. Cortana is capable of providing answers to basic questions, getting traffic or weather updates, managing your calendar, using information stored on a user’s smartphone to make personalized recommendations, and more.
  • Google Now, a digital assistant without the “personality” Siri and Cortana are known for, provides similar assistance and has the added benefit of being plugged into your Google email accounts, calendars, search results, contacts, and more. Unlike Siri, which is only available for mobile Apple devices, and Cortana, which is available for Windows desktops, laptops, and mobile devices, Google Now can be used on Android and iOS products as well as on the Google Chrome web browser.
  • Alexa is a cloud-based voice service housed in the Amazon Echo speaker. Acting as an assistant for your home rather than your personal or professional life, Alexa can play music off various programs and apps, read audiobooks, set timers, control light switches, and provide you with news or weather updates.

While useful, digital assistants have their shortcomings. They are designed to get better over time as they “learn,” but the training process can be time-consuming. Further, digital assistants still have difficulties understanding users, which impairs their usefulness. For example, users often need to correct dictated messages and voice commands are often misunderstood. Digital assistants also require giving up quite a bit of personal information, a proposition that leaves many users uncomfortable in a world where digital theft is all too common. Digital assistants need to know your schedule, your favorite contacts, your habits, and more to work well. Finally, the utility of digital assistants is often limited by their compatibility and accessibility. Many digital assistants are only compatible with certain platforms or apps and do not work without WiFi or cellular connectivity.

To get the most out of your digital assistant, assess what the software does well, but, rather than extend the digital assistant past its range of usefulness, integrate it with human help. In particular, you can blend your use of digital assistants with the use of a Virtual Assistant to supercharge your efficiency. How can a digital assistant and virtual assistant be paired for the most efficient use?

  • You can outline or dictate a correspondence through your digital assistant and follow up with your VA to have them clean up the draft before sending it to recipients.
  • Set an event in your calendar using your digital assistant, being sure to indicate attendees, location (whether physical or telephonic), and if food or a conference call is needed. Give your virtual assistant access to your calendar so she can make the necessary arrangements for the meetings.
  • Use your virtual assistant to update contact information for prospects and business associates. Use your digital assistant to quickly access them.
  • Use your virtual assistant to plan a business trip, including flights, accommodations, and rental cars. While traveling, use your digital assistant to check the weather and get the best directions to avoid traffic.
  • Your digital assistant can identify a game, show, event, or movie you want to attend. If the event is in high demand, have your virtual assistant scour online secondary markets to identify tickets in your price range.

When used for quick and straightforward tasks like getting the weather, figuring out the best route to take, or setting a reminder, digital assistants can help save you time. However, using digital assistants for more complex tasks like preparing long documents, planning a vacation, or coordinating a day-long meeting is beyond their capabilities. The question of whether you need a digital assistant or a virtual assistant is the wrong one. Each serves their own purpose. The challenge is to seamlessly integrate their capabilities.