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What We Learned About Voice Technology from Developing an Alexa Skill

Voice interaction is the next major paradigm shift for the way people interact with smart devices. By 2018, Gartner estimates 30% of interactions with smart machines will be with voice. Presently, more than 50% of Millennials use voice commands at least once a month to interact with their devices, and children of the next generation (sometimes termed Generation Z) are already using voice across the board and will grow to see this as the only way to interact with machines.

Mirrored to the Mobile App Explosion

In many ways this shift is vastly similar to the explosion of mobile apps in the marketplace just 10 years ago. Although the touch interface dates way back to the 1960s and was popularized in the 1990s with Palm Pilot and other personal digital assistants (PDAs), it didn’t really gain major traction until the release of the iPhone in 2007. With the rise of mobile apps that followed, companies scrambled to compete in the mobile marketplace.

Expect the same innovation to occur with voice. Voice interaction got its first exposure in 1952 when Bell Laboratories designed a program to understand the vocalization of digits for the purpose of dialing phone numbers, but the technology is experiencing meteoric growth with Amazon Alexa. Amazon currently commands more than 70% of the voice-controlled speaker market and represents the best voice platform for reaching the greatest number of customers. Competitors, including Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and the Google Assistant, are scrambling to catch up. The good news for everyone is this competition, fueled with billions of dollars of R&D, will spur incredibly rapid innovation in the space.

The massive growth in mobile was aided by the millions of third-party mobile apps that reached the marketplace very quickly. Amazon has set the foundation for similar growth to occur in voice by creating its Alexa Skills ecosystem. Alexa Skills are essentially the first third-party apps for the voice marketplace and are showing rapid growth, from 1,000 to 15,000 in just one year.

Amazon has enabled a low barrier of entry to develop Skills through the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). ASK makes it very easy for developers to jump in and get started, with pre-built templates to download and build from.

This is great for companies who want to get on board early in developing their own Alexa Skills; those who do so now will be the leaders when voice explodes in the very near future. It also opens an exciting world of growth potential for developers to get in on the ground floor with a highly marketable skill that will be in high demand in the future. Plus, the principles of Alexa Skills should transfer to competitors’ offerings as they get more skin in the game.

In other words, the same opportunity that web developers had to jump in on mobile apps is now open with voice.

The Seattle Parks Events Alexa Skill

AIM Consulting has experimented with Alexa already and released a Seattle Parks Events Alexa Skill into the market a few weeks ago. Earlier in the summer, we took a look at what Alexa Skills already existed and decided to create a Skill for families to discover events happening in Seattle parks within a given timeframe using voice. Using AWS Lambda functions to execute code in the cloud, the Skill fetches and parses a public calendar and lists the events to the user.

Here are some things we learned in the process of building and submitting an Alexa Skill:

  1. Voice is different from touch

The whole approach to UX is different with voice. There is nothing to “see” visually, so instead of visual workflows a developer must think in terms of hierarchies of information and language. Also, voice requires savvy to predict how people might phrase questions to Alexa. While Alexa handles much of this variance, when developing an Alexa Skill you must provide sample phrases, called “utterances”, of how people might ask a question. This requires both development and language expertise.

  1. Skills have a lot of possibility and potential

Voice has limitless application. As was also once true of mobile apps, a lot of what is on the market now is experimental. The mobile app market was initially flooded with simple apps like calculators and piano keyboards, but then Rovio came along with Angry Birds. With a simple but revolutionary drag-and-release activated by user touch, the game took the market by storm and became insanely popular. We are now in similar experimentation phase with voice and revolutionary application is just around the corner. Watch this short YouTube video of a 5-year-old interacting with Alexa if you want to get excited. The potential is limitless.

  1. The process is well supported by Amazon

The Alexa Skills Kit is inherently simple to use, although it can get more complex the deeper you delve into it. The Skills submission process is also fairly straightforward, much simpler at this stage than submitting a mobile app to the Apple Store. One issue we ran across involved the aforementioned utterances. When writing a Skill, you include three sample utterances, and during the submission process, the utterances you include must match those in the code verbatim. When we ran into this issue, we discovered that Amazon has amazing customer support to resolve these matters quickly. This early support is a brilliant move on Amazon’s part to help ensure Alexa’s early success, but it may wane as the number of Skills in the Alexa Skill Store multiplies.

At the moment, most companies are generally not equipped internally to build Alexa Skills and it will take time for developers to ramp up on the technology. However, some companies are taking Skills seriously already. Here’s a gallery of Skills to give you an idea of what’s going on early in this exciting new world.

AIM is Positioned Well to Dominate Development of Alexa Skills

Now is the time when the entire voice interaction paradigm is being structured. These are the pioneering days, where one company can establish a strong lead and ensure momentum. But regardless of how the paradigm evolves, it’s critical for companies to strike while the iron is hot. There will be tremendous innovation with voice in the next several years and the market is sure to saturate quickly.

AIM is already offering Alexa Skills development as a capability and consulting service. AIM is both an ASK and AWS partner with the knowledge of web applications, digital experience, and business processes to help companies leverage Skills to become leaders in the voice marketplace. Indeed, AIM is building capability across the entire voice space. Although starting with Alexa Skills because it is the fastest growing of these products and currently the most open to third party development and integration, AIM’s technology-agnostic approach to technology solutions ensures the ability to expand into other voice technology and voice assistant applications as necessary.

Dream the Future

The future is bright for Alexa. That’s why we’re getting in on the ground floor. Voice interface is being integrated into automobiles, home appliances, light switches, and more. AI and machine learning will provide the intelligence to make voice input even more compelling. With developers supported to create fun and useful experiences for users, it won’t be long before we all wonder what we did before voice. Given the endless possibilities to leverage the voice paradigm, and with the huge growth ahead, the time to start learning Alexa Skills is now.

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