When Amazon first introduced the Echo, Nick Schwab was intrigued. He’d always loved voice commands in his car, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to buy another cool device just yet. Then the Echo Dot came out, and once again, Nick couldn’t resist a good deal. He ordered his own Dot, dug into the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). Right away, he started working on Bargain Buddy, an Alexa skill to relieve him of a daily surf to find daily deals.
Two days after the Bargain Buddy was certified, Nick received his Echo Dot in the mail—his first Alexa device. That’s right, he developed, tested and released his first Alexa skill, before he even had his first Echo Dot.
That was early in 2016. These days, Nick has become a force to be reckoned in the Alexa developer community.
A back-end developer turns Alexa skill master
Nick has lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan for most of his life. He started doing web development when he was 13 years old, then later majored in computer information systems in college. Now 27, Nick has been creating web APIs and designing back-end systems architecture for several years. Some of his work includes creating the APIs for Ambassador, an Inc. 500 company, managing hundreds of database servers for Allstate Insurance, and building APIs to power the iOS and Android apps of several startups.
While he loves his work, Nick says the biggest challenge for a back-end developer is showing off his work to prospective employers and consumers alike. In his words, “there’s nothing cool for those people to see or interact with.”
Then he found Alexa. Alexa’s voice capabilities are definitely something people can interact with. “I just saw an awesome new technology and thought, boy this is going to be big. So I jumped on it,” Nick says.
A parade of Alexa skills
Nick created Bargain Buddy because he thought it would be useful to him. “Scratching your own itch” is advice Nick always gives other developers. Besides, the bargain websites had readily available APIs for him to use. Instead of searching for deals, he could just enable the Bargain Buddy skill, say “Alexa, ask Bargain Buddy for the Woot” and then decide whether to visit the site.
Bargain Buddy was followed by Opening Bell, a skill to check the current price of a publicly traded stock, just by speaking the company’s natural name. Nick wanted to check the prices of his holdings—again, scratch your own itch—but many companies have unusual or hard-to-remember stock symbols. Nick used a public API to resolve company names to ticker symbols and retrieve the price, then a second fallback API in case the first one failed. Opening Bell took third place in Hackster’s Hey Alexa! The Amazon Alexa Skill Contest.
Next came Funny News. In this skill, Nick tried to inject a little satire and levity into the daily news by hooking up Alexa with fark.com’s XML feed. The skill won runner up in Hackster’s The Internet of Voice Challenge.
Then things got even more interesting. At his new apartment, Nick found himself with a noisy neighbor. So he could get some sleep, he decided to create a skill that plays a 20-minute loop of rain sounds as ambient noise. He used Rain Sounds for three weeks before it was published and available in the Alexa app. It was an instant hit, receiving two dozen positive reviews the day it was published. “Adoption of Rain Sounds was the best out of all the skills I’d made to that point,” Nick says.
Based on user requests, Nick decided to create a series of ambient sound skills, starting with Thunderstorm Sounds and Ocean Sounds. The skills help over 100,000 monthly users concentrate, fall asleep or just drown out irritating noise.
Nick is just getting started.
Challenges and Advice
Nick says one of his biggest challenges was with Opening Bell. He found that even with a fallback stock API, the skill failed to resolve some companies. “There are thousands of companies out there with really strange names and it’s hard for Alexa to interpret them all the time.”
Nick wanted to create custom rules for such names, but he had to know what Alexa was hearing and sending the skill in the failure cases. That’s when he added VoiceLabs voice analytics to his skill. With VoiceLabs, he was able to identify specific sounds/names the APIs can’t resolve—not to mention many other useful insights. (Read more about Nick’s experience with VoiceLabs in this interview.)
Adding extra analytics to your skill is one of Nick’s first pieces of advice to other Alexa developers:
- Add extra analytics to discover troublesome areas in your skill.
- Scratch your own itch – build something that you find useful.
- Choose an invocation name with obvious meaning to users. (Nick says he would pick “Stock Price” instead of “Opening Bell” if he did it again.)
- Handle timeouts and other exceptions gracefully, instead of a generic error time-out message from Alexa.
- Use the Alexa developer forums, and join the unofficial Alexa Slack group.
“Voice in the home stands to be really big,” Nick says and he continues to build more Alexa skills in the future. Check out all of the Alexa skills Nick has built here.
Get Started with Alexa Skills Kit
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