Need a ride? Lyft is an on-demand transportation platform that lets you book a ride in minutes. It’s as easy as opening up the Lyft app, tapping a button and a driver arrives to get you where you need to go. Now, they’ve made it even easier. Simply say, “Alexa, ask Lyft to get me a ride to work.”
A culture of hackathons and rapid innovations
Roy Williams, the Lyft engineer who built the Alexa skill, said it started with a company hackathon.
Lyft has a long culture of hackathons. Each quarter, the San Francisco company invites employees to experiment with new ideas. The story goes that Lyft itself was born at such a hackathon, with someone’s idea for an “instant” ride service.
“It took about three weeks to go from the original prototype to a finished app,” Williams said. Lyft has been going strong ever since.
Alexa: Yet another innovation for Lyft
That wasn’t the last innovation to spring from a Lyft hackathon.
Williams said he purchased an Amazon Echo during the 2015 Black Friday sale. He immediately knew he wanted create an Alexa skill to let Echo users order a “lyft.” Williams dove into the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) documentation, and he started building his prototype at the January hackathon. It was a hit.
Beyond the prototype, Williams estimates the project took three weeks of solid engineering time. The team spent one week working on the core functionality, including adding some workflow to their own API. It spent another week working through edge cases and complex decision trees, so the skill would never leave a user confused or at a dead-end. Finally, they spent another week on testing and analytics, before releasing it for an internal beta with 30 users.
Williams says ASK is very comprehensive, and because it is JSON-based, it makes testing easy. He admits having to add some edge testing to account for cases like asking Lyft for “a banana to work.” (Bananas are a favorite test fruit during certification.) In the end, he knew Lyft had a high-quality skill with near-one hundred percent test coverage.
Amazon published the final Lyft skill in July.
Megan Robershotte is a member of Lyft’s partner marketing team. She explained the Alexa skill fit well with the company’s primary goal: to get people to take their first ride with Lyft.
“We’re growth-focused. Lyft is a convenience you have to experience to appreciate. Alexa makes it just that much easier [for people] to try it. And we hope this new integration will help to drive growth.” She also noted that Alexa helps users develop a regular cadence—a daily routine—one in which Lyft can play a natural part.
Williams agrees Alexa fits into his daily commute scenario. “I’m habitually late, rushing to get ready for work. I don’t know where my shoes are, and who knows where my phone is. Being able to shout out for Alexa to call me a ride to work was really powerful to me.”
The Alexa integration led the team to yet another Lyft innovation. Unlike a web browser or smartphone app, Alexa has no screen or map to specify the user’s end destination. So Lyft added destinations as a core part of the user experience. You can now ask Alexa for a ride to Work, Home or any airport serviced by Lyft.
Alexa lets Lyft be Lyft-y
Williams wanted the new skill to be functional, but he also wanted using it to feel “Lyfty.” That’s a bit hard to explain, unless you’ve experience the Lyft culture for yourself. The Alexa team heard his concern and made suggestions to make the voice interaction feel natural. They also stressed the simpler and fewer choices a user has to remember, the better the interface.
Designing for voice is different than with a UI. You don’t know what the user will say, but you have to make the best match. If that action isn’t possible, you still want to be helpful and friendly. You have to offer "Hey, we can’t fit four people into a ride, would you like Lyft Plus instead?”
Williams says Lyft riders expect friendliness and a bit of fun as part of the experience. Alexa helps him deliver that. He says they’ve even baked Lyfty (fun) music into the app for when the skill is processing a ride request. “We tried to make sure that it felt just like Lyft.”
Lyft users seem to agree he hit the mark. The Lyft skill maintains a high star rating in the Alexa app.
Robershotte summed up the company’s experience with Alexa this way. “We took a lot of time making sure the way Alexa responds is friendly, approachable and helpful - reflective of the Lyft brand. Building that experience has helped reinforce our brand personality. And it’s also helped to drive more people to use Lyft on a daily basis.”
Need a ride? Just say Alexa, enable “Lyft” and follow the instructions to link it to your Lyft account.
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