Finding Your Voice with Alexa
Amazon plan that by 2021, 1.83 billion people will be using their voice platform “Alexa” daily.
Currently, that number sits at 390 million users. “Voice is Everywhere” they like to remind us, and with their sleeper hit the Amazon Echo, Amazon are paving the way to this seamless way of interacting with technology.
At Bemo, we’ve been conversing with Alexa for the best part of a year now, flexing and testing the technology’s limits as well as pondering its implications. We've ran workshops on the position and potential of bots and AI assistants in the wider mobile ecosystem and on using conversation as a design material. We have produced proof of concept Alexa skills for mobile banking and TV listings. So when we got the chance to meet with the team responsible for the UK launch of Alexa and participate in a hands on Alexa bootcamp, we jumped at the chance.
Here are our take-aways:
Alexa is more than the Echo
For those of you new to the party, “Alexa” is an Amazon Cloud based voice service that launched a little over 2 years ago in the states and is now available in the UK and Germany. You can use Alexa to surf the web, play a music track, coach you through a soufflé recipe or open your garage door and park your Tesla.
Alexa is largely known as the voice that inhabits the Echo - a long cylindrical tube equipped with far-field microphones allowing it to pick up commands from anywhere that’s in earshot. Third-party developers are free to design “skills” which are then available for download on amazon.co.uk. Below is an example "day-in-the-life" of an Alexa user.
The growing list of skills range from the useful National Rail skill to the entertaining Hogwarts Hat Sorting game. More interestingly though, the Alexa Voice service can also be embedded in a growing list of partnered smart devices such as Wemo , Belkin, Philips Hue, Hive and BMW to name just a few. The latter is what consumers are really getting excited about. Amazon have predicted the most impactful environments for Alexa to bring value to are hands-free spaces such as the kitchen, in the car and the growing Smart Home market.
Focus on engagement
Alexa is a completely new channel for companies to communicate with their customers, but as with any new market, the topic of how to monetise skills is broached repeatedly by many an enterprising developer.
Skills are and will be for the foreseeable future, free to download.
Amazon encourages developers to focus on building engaging, useful experiences and using Alexa as a new way to super-serve their existing customer base. Companies should ask themselves, what do people come to us for and how could a skill bring a step change improvement for them to interact with our product or service?
Having said that that, Amazon did share that some brands were getting around this by adding “newsflash brought to you by “insert known car company here”. Entertainment being one of the most popular use case for Alexa, game developers are particularly interested in exploring the Alexa skills business model. As it stands, companies should see building skills as a new channel of customer engagement and brand awareness.
Conversation as a design material
These are exciting times for the design industry. From Voice to VR, the designer’s canvas keeps expanding with new interface layers to create unique customer experiences. Voice User Interface or “VUI” for short is really in its infancy, but as more customers get past the weird factor of hollering commands throughout the house, some privacy concerns and become more and more accustomed to interacting with their services via Voice, there is a need to establish best practices early on. Indeed, having a great idea for an Alexa skill and jumping right into development is tempting but risky. There are no hamburger menus or visual crutches and a literally translated app interface will result in your user likely getting frustrated and never summoning your skill again.
So before you touch a line of code, it’s important to map out your skill’s core conversations. Grab some paper, open a notes document or role play out your idea of how people will “converse” with your skill. There are 50 eskimo words for snow so there are likely more than 3 "utterances" to ask for your next bus times.
The emphasis must be on teaching your skill how to speak and understand a user, not the other way around. "Help me, don't train me" is one of our core Experience Guidelines in building engaging VUIs. Think of your user's context, are they at home, on the move, what device are they using, what time of day is it?
Finally spending some time fleshing out your skill’s persona; its pace, energy and tone of voice will really help in making your skill sound consistent and not strangely flippant. Don't scrimp on user testing your skill, as by simply standing back and watching people trying to interact with your Alexa skill you will without a doubt discover utterances that you've missed out or understand what conversation paths your skill is lacking.
Discoverability is key
So you’ve built your first skill and it’s awesome - but how will people find it?
Discovering new apps is a problem that app stores across all platforms have been struggling to solve. And with over 3400 skills on the UK Alexa skills store alone, creating a brilliant skill is only half the challenge - inventive promotion and visibility is the other. With only an image, a "golden utterance" and short description, making yourself heard over the others is no small task. So mapping out a “discoverability plan”, effective cross channel promotion will be key. Communicating the power of voice and it’s potential to unshackle people from their phones will aid to bring your customers along on this journey.