6 Things You Should Know Before You Build Your Alexa Skill

Six things you should know before you build your Alexa Skill

When building your Alexa Skill, you may find that there are some parallels between creating a mobile app and creating an Alexa skills. However, your Alexa skill development process needs to be different. Afterall you are developing for voice and conversation, not for a desktop or mobile screen.

Alexa skill development is for a new medium – voice. Designing for voice is different from designing for mobile. Consider how a mobile app works. It can offer a broad range of choices (each with its own button or icon) for the user to ponder and select from. As users of mobile apps we have all been trained over the last decade on how to tap and swipe to activate those choices. But in the realm of voice, we already know how to interact conversationally.

Many developers for early Alexa skills created tree-like structures with a ton of multiple choice options. Essentially, these bad skills were just updated IVR (interactive voice response) solutions where any more than three options for the voice-enabled skill resulted in the user not remembering all of the choices. These “on-the-rails” experiences may work sometimes but often they do not.

The better skills we have seen and the ones we prefer to build incorporate conversation into the development. So when thinking about how to build your Alexa skill, it is important to remember that you are creating a conversation. Conversations can go in many different directions quickly and users forced to select a range of choices continuously will become fatigued of the Skill and likely move on to a better designed voice application.

How to Build Your Alexa Skill

1. The best bots are domain specific and task driven.  Skills that solve actual problems or make life easier will be the first to be scooped up immediately and used repeatedly. If your skill fills a niche – that can be okay. Afterall, there are over 100 million Amazon Echos out there and a massive number of Google Home devices as well. In a world focused on fulfilling the needs of the long-tail, your skill may have a place in it. What you need to consider, however, is what trigger will cause your users to interact with your skill? People typically want to have a need met – they are bored (47 percent play music and audiobooks on their devices), hungry (“Alexa, order a cheese quesadillas from my favorite place?”) or anxious (people love the calming sounds of white noise) and need information (like the weather and traffic skills). Creating a skill that has a purpose also will help you avoid the monotony of the IVR-like experience.

2. Eight seconds. It’s about as long as an IndyCar Race pit stop. It’s also an unbreakable rule of successful Alexa skills. Your customers only have 8 seconds to talk to Alexa before it times out. This means you should think carefully about what kind of information your skill will obtain from users. If the information is complex or more than a few words, you may want to include more dialogue in your skill or revise your approach. In all honesty, this is no different than regular conversation. Its rare that anyone wants to listen to someone else for long periods of time without inserting their own thoughts. Again you are building you Alexa Skill developing for conversation, and many conversations can be transactional and not take a long time to complete.

3. Your skill is not a commercial. By adding a useful skill to the Alexa library, you are, of course, helping to build your brand message (“We are future-ready!”). Your Skill can be a pivotal part of your marketing campaign – but not as a commercial. It should instead serve users by helping them fulfill a need. Users do not want to hear a lot of advertising to get something done, so they will avoid skills that promote the business over the skill’s usefulness. (Think of all the people who use ad blockers, even on mobile devices.). Discovery Networks has built a host of Skills focused on their branded content. What they have done is integrate their broadcast content into the Skill, so users can interact with Discovery in another channel whenever they choose. The Skills are not commercials but they encourage increased affinity to the brand.

4. Plan it out. When building your Alexa Skill, you should plan your voice interaction model before hammering out any code. Designing for voice applications is complicated, especially if you rely on tree-like (choose-this-then-that approach to delivery of the experience). Voice applications can use natural language processing (a form of Artificial Intelligence) to help users navigate the application. For instance thinking through how a user will know what to do with your skill is a critical first design step to figure out when you build your Alexa Skill? When starting your application it is always a good idea to provide a brief overview of what the application can do. You will also want to test your skill. Perhaps by organizing focus groups. Let the groups try out the skill to see how they interact with it.

5. Think about privacy. While consumers are willing to share some types of information with businesses, it is important to keep privacy in mind when building an Alexa skill. Since Alexa skills are voice-enabled, your users will speak commands and answers that could contain personal information. You should consider the impact of having that information shared out loud or stored. What types of information do you really need to perform the skill? What kind of impact would that information have on the user or the people around them? How will you manage the data they provide?

6. There are two choices. You can either create a custom model or use a prebuilt model for your skill. Of course, the custom skill offers you the broadest range of freedom when it comes to building your Alexa Skill. The downside, of course, is that you will likely need to have a significant amount of coding experience in your background or a strong willingness to invest some time in creating a skill. Prebuilt models are less flexible, but they come with the user requests and utterances predefined, making it easier to generate a generic skill. The Alexa Skill kit is a great place for beginners thinking through their options. However as your skill increases in complexity and the need for continuous management becomes necessary, developing your own skill that gives you more control becomes the obvious choice.

Where to Start?

Building an Alexa skill is a rewarding experience, but it does require some prep work before it can be successfully added to the skills library. The most important aspect of creating skills is to think of the users. What do they need? How are you making their lives easier with your skill? Are you keeping their privacy in mind? The most successful skills are user-centric, meeting needs and supplying helpful information. Got a great idea for an Alexa skill but not sure how to bring it to life? Contact us to get some insights.

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