What is Alexa Skill?
Well, for starters, it must have something to do with Alexa, right? No, not a real person named Alexa. This is all about Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa, that has been enabling consumers to easily interact with devices using voice commands and thereby access a wide range of services for work, leisure and everything in-between even more easily than typing or using an app.
For example, if you have Amazon’s Echo or Dot smart speaker, just asking it “Alexa, what’s the outside temperature right now”? will get you the information you seek. If you live in a smart home, you could just as easily ask, “Alexa, switch on the living room lights please”- and the job’s done. It’s not quite magic, although it sure can feel like that the first few times.
So how does Alexa know what to do in response to your question or instruction? The answer lies in what is collectively referred to as “Alexa Skills”. An “Alexa skill” is a voice-activated app that enables Alexa to search and connect the relevant hardware, software and online content to perform the task or comply with the instruction. Examples of Alexa skills includes playing music from different sources, providing weather forecasts and querying resources such as Wikipedia. As the repository of Alexa Skills grows, users can now use Alexa to even do the following:
- Find answers to questions: “Alexa, ask ABC for pizza discounts in San Francisco today”.
- Take actions in smart homes: “Alexa, brighten the lights behind the TV”.
- Place orders: “Alexa, order a Uber cab from here to the airport”.
- Play games: “Alexa, play chess with me”.
How Alexa Skills work
The Amazon Echo is essentially a computer with speakers and microphones housed in a sleek body. The computer is programmed to recognize the wake word “Alexa”, which is why all instructions and questions must begin with the word “Alexa”. Amazon’s Voice Services (AVS) are triggered by the wake word, and the user’s question, instruction or command following the wake word is recorded. This is then sent via the internet to Amazon’s cloud computing platform, which triggers the necessary actions (playing music, switching lights on/off etc.) by sending back appropriate information/ instructions to the originating device.
At the heart of every Alexa skill is an interaction modelthat determines what kind of requests can be handled by that skill and what words users need to say to evoke the desired actions and responses. Alexa Skill Kit offers several pre-built interaction models such as the following:
Smart Home Skill API– lets users control smart home devices such as lights, thermostats, TVs etc.
Video Skill API– lets users control video services (e.g. streaming shows, activate/switch off video cameras etc.)
Flash Briefing Skill API– sources original content for users’ flash briefings.
Music Skill API – enables users to choose music, listen to the selections, and control audio content streamed through Alexa-enabled devices.
Depending on the nature of action that Alexa needs to take in response to the user’s voice command, businesses can either use one or more of the pre-built interaction models available within the ASK or build their own custom interaction models (e.g. to integrate with web services and order tickets or food online). Pre-built interaction models have pre-defined “intents” (the requests the skill can handle) and “utterances” (words that users need to say). In a custom interaction model, the business must define the intent and utterances.
What Alexa skills can you build?
The short answer is: anything that is authorized by Amazon and can be integrated with Alexa services. Businesses are building a host of Alexa Skills that can help users do a wide range of things, including:
- Looking up information (e.g. traffic conditions, availability of air tickets etc.)
- Lifestyle decisions (e.g. query if a home is locked or not)
- Laundry skill (ask your laundry to pick up your clothes)
- eCommerce (transact repeat orders, explore discounts, offers etc)
- Podcasts (publish your podcast to Alexa in under 5 minutes and reach an audience of 100M+ users)
All of these can be done using the Emitrr platform as we’ve worked with customers in all of the above-listed domains.
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Why should you build Alexa skills?
Alexa’s rapidly rising popularity stems from the fact that new “skills” can be added- and indeed, are being regularly added. Businesses can “teach” Alexa new “skills” with the help of the platforms, self-service APIs, sample code and documentation that are collectively known as the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). The Kit represents Amazon’s growing expertise in the field of voice design. As Amazon opens up ASK, more and more businesses are starting to acquire expertise in building Alexa Skills.
Millions of users (100M+) around the world use Alexa-powered devices- and their number is growing rapidly. More and more companies are thus realizing that enabling Alexa to access their brands can be a powerful new marketing channel. For any brand, awareness is key; after all, only when your potential customers are aware of your brand and its promise are they likely to compare it with alternatives and decide to try it out. This is why more and more businesses are seeking to add specific “Alexa skills” that can help promote their brands. Think about it: with around 25% of mobile searches already being driven by voice (as opposed to typing text into browsers), if your business has a specific Alexa Skill associated with it, Alexa will point to your brand in response to the relevant query. A recommendation from Alexa may well be worth its weight in gold!
Let’s say you search for a certain keyword and your search engine returns some links. If a business has only a Facebook page but does not have a website, how much credibility would you give it? Chances are not much, right? As voice becomes more and more mainstream, brands and businesses that have their own Alexa Skills may command a higher level of credibility. By being proactive and investing in creating Alexa Skills that are relevant to your business, you have the first-mover advantage. [Remember also that right now, Amazon does not charge for new Alexa Skills to be uploaded, but will this remain for more than a year or two? Well, your guess is as good as ours!
It is said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating; data points around voice in general and Alexa in particular are very compelling:
- 53% of SMBs attributed their plans to invest more into voice marketing to “better insight into campaign success and ROI.”
- 48% of SMBs surveyed say Alexa has “the most potential for marketing among voice assistants”.
- Over 60% of SMBs say they have “done something in voice”- and this is most likely to be related to voice based search
As the smart home ecosystem expands, more and more home appliances and devices will be activated by voice. This needs strong voice assistants. With Alexa being a clear leader, it makes sense for companies to start building Alexa Skills that will make it easier for Alexa to associate their businesses with specific search instructions. Smart TVs, refrigerators, streaming devices, garage door opening. All we can say is “Alexa, so much more to do”!
Alexa skills can also play a key role in enabling Digital Transformation for many B2C industries, as it can help improve customer experience by delivering greater levels of convenience (e.g. ordering when driving or turning lights on/off when you are traveling).
So no matter which way you look at it, Alexa Skills are going to play an important role in a digital world that starts to rely more on voice-activated searches and instructions.
Alexa skill-building process
Alexa is currently the world’s most popular voice search assistant. Thanks to Amazon’s efforts, building Alexa skills has become easier over the past few years. From being a coding-intensive task, today many Alexa skills can be built by people who do not possess deep technical expertise in programming.
So how does one actually build an Alexa Skill? Once you have figured out what kind of Alexa Skill you are looking to build, the process is systematic.
The key is to figure out what the purpose of the Alexa Skill is, how users are likely to interact with the Skill and what outcomes are expected to be delivered to users invoking that Skill. Once this has been firmed up, the next steps involve building the interaction model, writing the code, testing it, fixing any bugs or adding refinements and then finally, submitting the Alexa Skill for certification.
Alexa Skills can be developed from first principles or using platforms like ours.
Step 1: Voice user interface design: This is all about how users will access the Skill you are looking to design and the types of user request your Skill will handle (i.e. the intents). This is best done via a flow diagram.
Step 2: Build your interaction model using the voice design: This is the core of the Skill building process. It involves combining the kinds of words and phrases users may use to interact with the skill (these are called utterances) with arguments (slots), the kinds of requests your skill is being designed to handle (i.e. intents) and sample utterances (which map intents to utterances). The dialog model is the glue that binds them all by identifying what information your skill requires and how Alexa can gather and validate that information during its interactions with users.
Step 3: You have two choices when writing the code for the Skill. If you wish to remain within the Amazon ecosystem, you could use AWS’ Lambda function to host your skill as a service. If you are using Lambda, you may code in Node.js, Java, Python, C#, or Go. Alternatively, you can build a web service for your skill using any programming language and host it with any cloud provider- this is outside the Amazon ecosystem, except that Amazon will need to certify the Skill before devices running Alexa can access your newly-developed Alexa Skill.
Step 4: Test your Skill to ensure that it works the way you intended it to. You can even beta test the Skill to gather feedback and refine the Skill.
Step 5: Once you are happy that your Skill works the way you want, run the validation and functional tests on the and if your Skill clears them, submit your Skill for certification. If you are using the Custom model, be aware of the certification requirements.
Alexa Skills can be developed independently or using platforms that offer templates. Here are examples of how Alexa Skills can help businesses or individuals:
- Professional chefs (or even those who just love cooking) can dish out recipes
- Yoga/meditation instructors, personal trainers, gyms and fitness studios can deliver curated content around exercise routines, diets, meditation etc
- Music/dance teachers can provide customers with curated videos, audio files etc.
- Teachers can make it easier for students to learn new concepts (and make learning fun).
- Quiz buffs can create customized quizzes (audiences, themes, levels of difficulty etc).
- Writers can publish their work.
- Religious or spiritual content too can be disseminated.
Build better, more differentiated Alexa Skills
Like with any other product/service, customers will purchase (i.e. download) only those Alexa Skills that are relevant and useful to them. If you are an Alexa Skill developer, here are some tips that may help ensure that your Skills stand out:
- Don’t spend time on developing a Skill that is not useful (or does not have a large enough addressable market); where possible, look for new user intents that can be addressed, rather than refine existing Skills.
- The principle of KISS (“Keep it Short and Simple”) applies just as much to Alexa commands.
- Broadbase utterances so a wider range of users can benefit. Accents apart, accommodate variants of commonly used words and phrases. For example, “yes”, “yeah”, “yep” etc.
- Test frequently as you develop your Skill so there are no inadvertent glitches that show up later.
- Explore the possibility of using human voices to differentiate your Skill. A fresh voice may enhance the appeal of your Skill; besides, over time, the nasal monotone of Alexa can start grating on one’s nerves.
Emitrr is a platform that allows businesses/users/developers to design, build and publish Alexa skills. Visit emitrr.com to know more or write to us on email@example.com. We’ve worked with agencies/businesses to help them build a voice strategy for marketing/engagement/acquisition and more.