Amy Stapleton has always loved to tell stories, especially to kids who are always up for a good tale. And with the rise of voice technology, she became fascinated with the idea of turning voice services like Alexa into engaging storytellers.
So, following a career at NASA, Stapleton founded a company with colleague Corey Baswell. Their company, Tellables, has a simple mission: to transform voice technology into interactive storytellers that engage kids of all ages. And in Alexa, the pair found the engaging storyteller they were looking for.
Today, the company has three popular story-based skills for Alexa, all designed to keep children engaged while also developing their critical-thinking skills. In fact, Tellables' Tricky Genie skill for Alexa has been so successful that Stapleton and Baswell got a call from Amazon informing them that their skill was one of the top-performing skills and that they had earned money.
“I couldn’t sleep that night, I was so thrilled,” says Stapleton. “The rewards provided us with the funds and the motivation to continue evolving our game skills and also build new skills in other categories.”
Telling a story to a child is quite different from telling a story to a grownup, says Stapleton. For one, kids lose focus fast, as Tellables’ skill usage data showed.
“We’ve learned to keep the stories themselves short, and then to offer opportunities for audience interaction,” says Stapleton. “It’s important to invent ways to let the child participate in the story.”
Tellables’ skills get kids involved in a number of ways. In the popular Listening Comprehension Practice skill, Alexa shares a story from Hutch, an entertaining fifth-grader who sometimes spins tall tales. Alexa then asks the child to answer yes-or-no questions about the story. When the player guesses the wrong answer, Alexa gently explains to the player the reason behind the right answer. This challenges the child to pay attention to the details and also helps develop his or her comprehension skills.
Tricky Genie, Tellables’ most popular skill, presents a problem-solving challenge to teach critical thinking. First, the skill shares a story about a character in a predicament. Then, Tricky Genie presents three bags, each holding a possible solution to the dilemma. The player must choose the bag with the best solution—all while Tricky Genie tries to trick the player into making the wrong choice.
Tellables’ latest skill, Fake History, follows a similar approach to engage with the teenage audience and whet their appetite to learn more about world history. Alexa presents the story of a historical event, place, or person. Then Alexa presents three different stories that purport to complete the story with what really happened. The teen must choose the right story to win.
When building skills for kids, it’s important to consider the age range of the target audience, says Stapleton.
“You can’t design a single skill that fits every child under the age of 13. What engages a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old are different,” she says.
Stapleton recommends first defining the age range of the audience, then building an engaging experience that’s appropriate for that age group.
“The challenge is to find a balance between a story and interaction that’s too easy and too hard. One that’s too hard will frustrate young listeners and discourage them from re-engaging.”
To support Tellables’ skills, Baswell, a seasoned Java developer, built a content management system (CMS). All the components of the stories—narrative, choices, questions, and answers—are stored as data elements in Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS), separate from the codebase and business logic that drive the interactions. He also coded a content management console that makes it simple for Stapleton, the writer, to quickly and easily create and publish new stories without having to deal with any code.
Baswell built a layer he calls the Tellables Skills Runtime Platform, which loads the stories from the CMS, maintains state for each user session, and handles all the protocol detail to and from the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK).
The interactions and flow logic vary from one skill to the next. For these, Stapleton says she draws detailed flowcharts, and hands these off to Baswell to implement in the Java code. When the code is complete, she uses the flowcharts to aid in testing, ensuring the skill properly handles all the possible paths.
Stapleton says the rewards Tellables received from Amazon motivated her to “spend a month just adding a bunch of new content” to her skills.
“Creating original narrative content is time-consuming and expensive, so the developer rewards are definitely a big factor in enabling us to continue,” she says.
And that, according to Stapleton, is the key to building a skill that keeps customers coming back. Stapleton is continually adding fresh content, which is one of the seven qualities of top-performing Alexa skills. And she can publish them at any time, no coding required, thanks to the simple console Baswell created as part of the CMS.
Stapleton says she knew fresh content would be critical to not only keep players coming back but also keep them engaged for longer sessions. And her approach appears to be working. Tricky Genie remains a top skill, maintains a 4-star rating, and regularly receives positive feedback from children and their parents.
“They praise the skill because it engages their kids or grandkids. At the same time, it exercises the child's critical thinking. They have to put their thinking cap on, so to speak, but they're having fun. If we can do that, we’ve accomplished our mission,” says Stapleton.