Building a successful Alexa skill: 6 takeaways from Amazon's Agency Day

March 31, 2015

We've already helped some of the UK's best-known brands explore opportunities around voice technology. If you'd like to hear more about that, or have an idea for an Alexa skill that you'd like help bringing to life, contact us.  

Recently, we went down to Amazon's impressive Shoreditch HQ for their Alexa Agency Day, to hear what they think makes a successful Alexa skill (a ‚skill' is the Alexa equivalent of an app).  

Here are six things we took away...

1. The UK is one of the most mature markets worldwide for voice

Despite smart speakers and other voice-enabled devices being comparatively new technology, there are already over 100 million Alexa devices in the UK. Design principles and methods for creating great experiences on them are still being figured out, which makes Voice an exciting and potentially lucrative new playground for anyone working in digital.  

Amazon Echo and Echo Dot

When you think of Alexa, you probably think of the Echo or Echo Dot devices‚  But, in fact, there are over 28,000 other devices that are compatible with Alexa, ranging from cars to headphones. So if you're starting to think about how your business might use voice to engage its audience, it's worth remembering that we're not just talking about in-home interactions.

2. The voice ecosystem is evolving all the time

Along with an ever-widening array of voice-enabled devices, Alexa's capabilities are evolving ‚ skills can now talk to each other, for instance, and in-skill purchasing was announced last year.  It also looks like the future is likely to be a hybrid mix of voice and screen-based UI, rather than one or the other, with the latest version of the Echo Show featuring a 10-inch touchscreen. With some experiences, whilst voice might be the easiest way for a user to request information, it might be best to present that information back visually ‚ a good example is train times, where trying to listen to a list of times and hold them in your head involves too much cognitive load; viewing them on a screen is much easier.

3. There's still plenty of room for brilliant new ideas

At the moment, there are still only around 80,000 Alexa skills on the market (compared to more than 1 million apps in the AppStore). In the words of our host at Amazon HQ, there's still no Candy Crush for Alexa!‚  Cooking and recipe skills are the most popular currently, but across the spectrum, from practical to entertainment-focussed skills, there's still loads of unexplored territory. That means this is a really exciting time to be experimenting with voice.

4. You need to find those magic moments where voice can make the most impact

When used well, voice can make everyday tasks easier, more enjoyable, and, perhaps most interestingly given the growing anxiety about how tech is isolating us from each other, more inclusive; unlike interactions on small mobile or tablet screens, smart speakers inherently lend themselves to group experiences.  

Voice isn't always the right medium, but if you know enough about your customers or audience, you should be able to start exploring whether voice could reduce friction from any tasks they need to complete, where it might add joy in a way no other medium could, or where it could enable family or friends to engage with content as a group.  

Identifying those opportune moments where voice has the chance to shine is key, but you still need to make the act of using the skill as fun and frictionless as possible ‚ think carefully about your CTA when promoting the skill via other channels, and also the 'invocation' (the words a user says to launch it)‚ the simpler and more memorable, the better.

5. There are some core principles that make for successful skills

Very broadly speaking, there are two types of skills‚ campaign-based skills tied to a specific event that have a limited lifespan, and evergreen skills designed for repeated use.  

Channel 4's Human Test skill, for example, was campaign-driven (to promote season 3 of the TV show *Humans*), whereas skills like Sleep and Relaxation Sounds are built for everyday use.

Both types are perfectly valid, depending on what you're trying to achieve. But if you want longevity, you need to be thinking about what's going to give your skill 'stickiness'.  

Amazon advises focussing on daily use cases where possible. Is there a certain morning/evening routine you can augment with voice, for instance? Chompers (a skill that delivers super-short stories for kids whilst they're brushing their teeth) is a great example.  Amazon's formula for a successful skill looks like this:

So, a successful skill needs to:

  • Provide value to the user (and not be too complex to use compared to the value being provided)
  • Have the potential for repeated use (i.e. ‚frequency')
  • Nudge the user to keep coming back (e.g. by continually adding fresh content)

Turn-offs for users include:

  • Account linking (there needs to be a compelling enough value exchange for people to be willing to enable links with other services)
  • Stale content (if a user returns once or twice expecting something new, only to disappointed, you've probably lost them)
  • Long-winded interactions (aim for simple commands and minimise demands on users' working memory whilst using the skill by not overloading them with information)

6. Branding and promotion is key

Whether you create a campaign-based skill or something with a longer lifespan, branding and promotion can be the difference between failure and success.  

Getting featured on Amazon's skill store is pretty much the holy grail, but it's unlikely you'll appear there unless you've already got some good engagement.

In order to get that engagement, you need people to know about your skill. Make sure you spend time creating a well-written, detailed description‚ you can apply the same fundamental SEO principles that work for ranking a website on Google here. And think about paid promotion on social media too‚ this is a great way to get some initial reach, as well as testing how your skill resonates with different audiences (by tweaking the targeting) and how well different messages cut through.

Your icon is also important, try to make it distinctive enough to stand out in the skill store. If the skill is for a major brand, make the most of that by using a recognisable logo in the icon if you can.

There might also be opportunities to promote the skill as part of existing media activity, or on product packaging, for example.  

And of course, whether you're a high-street name or a small business, you should have a page on your website that promotes the skill. You should also think about your 'sonic identity'‚ all BBC skills have a consistent ident, for example, so you always know when you're interacting with their IP. But there are also wider considerations around how you want to portray your brand's personality / tone of voice through Alexa.

Building interactions around pre-recorded audio clips, rather than relying entirely on Alexa's own speech, is one way of doing this.  

Finally, Amazon suggest thinking of your invocation like a hashtag‚ what's something simple, relevant and memorable that people will easily be able to recall when they next want to launch your skill? What's an invocation they could easily tell their friends to try out?

Interested in getting started with voice?

Contact us or read some of our research on how people use Voice.

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