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April 26, 2017Martha Kang
When you’re headed out for dinner, the last thing you want is to wait around for a table to open up. With QSR Automation’s DineTime skill for Alexa, you can simply ask Alexa to find nearby restaurants, check wait times, and even get in line—before you even leave the house.
Until last November, DineTime’s guest management system was only available to smartphone users. But when DineTime’s app developers attended AWS (Amazon Web Services) re:Invent, they found the opportunity to awaken to the voice revolution and joined in—something that had been on the DineTime features list roadmap.
Now, Amazon Echo users can simply say, “Alexa, tell DineTime to add my name to the waitlist” before they head out the door. That way, they get the waiting out of the way while they’re en route to the restaurant.
QSR Automations has been automating restaurant operations for two decades. Its DineTime platform streamlines guest waitlists, reservations, and food server operations across a network of thousands of restaurants spanning four continents.
The company created the DineTime smartphone app in 2011 to let diners browse the wait times for restaurants via phone. Last year, CEO Lee Leet wanted to further enhance QSR’s customer experience. So he sent his software development team to re:Invent 2016. Less than a week later, DineTime had found a new voice: Alexa.
Joshua Nord, QSR’s Vice President of Software Development, and his team were stuck in the aiport with a flight delay. They started brainstorming what a DineTime voice user interface might look like.
Within minutes, the team began exploring the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) documentation and started building their first skill. They worked as they flew, and by the time their plane landed, the team had a functional prototype. Just a week later, Hackster named QSR Automation a finalist in the AWS re:Invent Alexa Skill Contest.
“We’d planned to build a DineTime skill next year, but really, we didn't start anything until we were sitting in that airport,” says Nord. “With the hands-on lab and all the other resources available there from Amazon, we really couldn't have picked a better time than re:Invent to get it started.”
The goal of DineTime’s prototype skill (and its first version) was to let Alexa users find nearby DineTime restaurants and ask for their wait times. That meant either knowing the users’ location or allowing them to specify an area to search.
Even if location data had been readily available (as it is now with the Device Address API), most users want to specify a city or even neighborhood in which to find a restaurant. The challenge for DineTime was that the names of those cities or neighborhoods aren’t easily mapped in every location API.
Another challenge was defining the right set of utterances and mapping them to intents. Besides the many ways diners can ask for a restaurant, Nord says there are a surprising number of data points needed to locate that restaurant. There’s the user’s location (or where they want to be), the name or type of restaurant (or variants), the party size, and so on.
A mobile app can list such data for the user to select, but a voice skill has to collect this information via intents or voice prompts. It took numerous iterations and many real-person interactions to make the voice user interface flexible yet not overly complex.
As for integrating with the DineTime network infrastructure, the team was able to plug in calls to DineTime’s robust backend API.
For the second version, released in February, the team added account linking with DineTime user accounts. Using that account information and the DineTime API, the skill can add the diner to a restaurant’s waitlist, making the user experience even more complete.
Leet says his team isn’t nearly done adding features to the DineTime skill. As Alexa integration expands into mobile devices like smartphones and automobiles, providing a robust hands-free interface becomes even more important. After all, many diners are already out and about when they decide it’s time to pick a restaurant.
“People are moving around. They’re mobile. Voice offers an obvious advantage from an interface standpoint as opposed to the looking and tapping we’ve become used to,” says Leet. “We're going to continue looking at applications throughout all of our product lines. Keep your eyes—and your ears—open for more innovations from us on the voice front in 2017.”
The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) enables developers to build capabilities, called skills, for Alexa. ASK is a collection of self-service APIs, documentation, tools, and code samples that make it fast and easy for anyone to add skills to Alexa.
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