Five Benchmarks for Writing Dialog that Sounds Great to Alexa Customers

Rebecca Evahoe Aug 13, 2019
Design Beginner Tips & Tools Dialog Management Tutorial

Great Alexa skills depend on written prompts. In voice-first interfaces, the dialog you write isn’t one component of the user interface—it is the interface, because Alexa’s voice is the primary guide leading a customer through your skill.

But if you don’t have a background in writing, that’s okay! Any skill builder can improve their written dialog so it successfully serves the customer. This post covers five benchmarks your Alexa skill’s dialog should meet, and specific techniques for how you can get there.

Benchmark 1: Avoid Jargon and Ten-Dollar Words

Customers love low-friction interactions, and the individual words in your dialog can be a huge part of keeping the interaction simple and easy. Informal language is faster and less burdensome for a customer to process, so they can follow a voice interaction without pausing to respond.

Here are some examples of commonly used jargon or overly formal words, along with alternatives that could be used instead:

Jargon: “You can default to a stored method associated with this account, or override it by selecting an alternate method of payment.”
Simpler: “You can use the credit card on file, or add a new card.”

Jargon: “I can submit a request for a customer service representative to return your call.”
Simpler: “I can have an agent call you back.”

Jargon: “Would you like me to submit your order for processing?”
Simpler: “Ready to finish your order?”

Jargon: “The transaction attempt was not successful.”
Simpler: “Hmm. Something went wrong with your payment.”

So, what are some techniques for replacing jargon with clearer language? First, fresh eyes are valuable here. Find someone who’s not an expert in your skill’s content, and ask them to read or listen to your dialog and point out words that feel unfamiliar to them. Second, once you’ve identified some clunky words, find synonyms that are less formal. (Don’t be afraid to dust off that thesaurus!)

Benchmark 2: Apply the One-Breath Test for Concision

Remember that your skill’s dialog will be spoken out loud, one word at a time, so excess words in your prompts quite literally add time to the interaction. A useful guideline is that a prompt should be about as long as a human could say in one breath. It’s a great idea to read your dialog out loud or have a colleague read it to you.

If you identify some prompts that don’t pass the one-breath test, here are some ways you can shorten them:

  • Cut filler words, like “very.” Keep an eye out for words that don’t change the meaning of a sentence or add information; you can eliminate these.
  • Look out for wordiness around verbs. For example, “I’d like to be able to help you” can be shortened to “I can help.”
  • Find information that customers don’t need. For example, if a prompt contains a date, like “Your order will be ready on August 2, 2019,” you can usually omit the year.

There are concrete techniques you can use to make sentences concise. First, make sure each sentence passes the one-breath test by reading it aloud. Next, if you find sentences that don’t pass the test, cut your sentences down by challenging yourself to omit 2-5 words from every line of dialog in your code.

Benchmark 3: Introduce Variety into Your Dialog

Humans use a lot of variation in the way they speak. In contrast, voice experiences that repeat the same phrases don’t sound natural to the human ear. You can avoid repetitive dialog by adding randomized variations to your dialog. 

Look for the  skill dialog that your users will hear the most often, starting with the greeting. Imagine a skill that allows you to order groceries called Grocery Store. If you heard “Welcome to the Grocery Store!” with every launch, you’d grow tired of this greeting.

As a skill builder, you could provide randomized phrases so that customers might hear one of several responses upon launch. For example:

  • Thanks for stopping by the Grocery Store.
  • Hi, you’ve reached the Grocery Store.
  • Let’s fill your cart at the Grocery Store!

Another opportunity for variation is confirming a purchase, or congratulating a customer for completing a task. For example, if you have a skill that sells cupcakes, you could randomize phrases that confirm the purchase:

  • You’re all set! Treats are on the way.
  • It’s cupcake time! Your order is complete.
  • Sweet! You’ve successfully ordered your cupcakes.

It’s important to keep aspects of the flow consistent; your skill shouldn’t feel radically different or unfamiliar each time. But creating variation is an important way to keep your skill interesting and fresh, especially for skills a user might open every day, like skills for weather, exercise, or news.

To make sure your dialog isn’t overly repetitive, you can add a few simple techniques to your process. First, take a look at your list of dialog lines and identify 3-5 prompts that your customers will encounter each time they use your skill. Next, write 2-5 (or more!) variations for each of these lines. It’s a good idea to ask a few friends or colleagues to help you brainstorm, as you may come up with more creative variations as a group.

For more guidance, check out the Alexa Design Guide’s section on adding variety in repetitive tasks, and using adaptive prompts.

Benchmark 4: Try Contractions and Informal Phrasing

General advice for Alexa dialog is “Write it the way you say it.” People use lots of contractions when they speak, such as:

  • “I’m” instead of “I am”
  • “I’d” instead of “I would”
  • “Don’t” instead of “do not”
  • “Can’t” instead of “cannot”

“I cannot help you with that” sounds much stiffer than “I can’t help you with that.” Because your skill’s dialog should be casual and conversational, for most situations, the contracted version is preferred.

Humans also use short phrases; not every line of dialog has to be a complete sentence. This keeps your prose natural, and contributes to concise sentences. For example:

  • “Done!” instead of “This purchase is complete.”
  • “Ready?” instead of “Do you want to continue?”
  • “Got it, four adult tickets to next week’s choir concert!” instead of “Okay, I will place an order for four adult tickets to go see the choir concert taking place next week.”

With just a little extra effort, you can make sure your dialog sounds casual and easy on the ear. First, circle all of the verbs that could be turned into contractions. Reading out loud can help you identify these places, too. Next, you can identify dialog that can be turned into shorter phrases. Some good candidates for phrases are prompts that end with a question and confirmation phrases.

Benchmark 5: Use SSML for Better Pacing

When customers listen to a long string of dialog without meaningful pauses, the words can bleed together and create confusion. It’s a great idea to employ synthetic speech markup language (SSML) to adjust aspects of Alexa’s speech so it sounds even more natural to a human ear.

You can use SSML to do lots of things, from tweaking a word’s pronunciation to adjusting emphasis on a specific syllable. But perhaps the simplest SSML tag with the biggest impact is the break time tag, which represents a pause in speech. Sometimes adding even a few milliseconds of extra time can help your customer comprehend the prompt more easily.

For example, you can use SSML to add time between menu items:

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    There are three house plants I’d recommend for your apartment: elephant ear, <break time="600ms"/> peace lily <break time="600ms"/> and spider plant.

You can also add a lengthier pause between sentences, usually to indicate a transition between content and a next step:

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    You answered a total of 14 questions right! 
    That beats your all-time high score of 12 correct answers. <break time="1s"/> Want to play again?

To identify places where a pause is useful, listen to each prompt being read by Alexa. An easy way is to paste your dialog into the Voice & Tone speech simulator, located in the Test tab in the Alexa developer console. If a sentence seems rushed, add some break time tags and listen again to fine-tune. You can experiment with adding pauses of varying lengths, from 300 milliseconds to one second.

Benchmark Checklist

If you’ve done all of these things, your dialog will be crafted for a natural, concise, easy-on-the-ear customer experience.

  1. Eliminate jargon by asking for feedback from someone who’s not an expert in your skill’s content.
  2. Perform the one-breath test and, if you need to, cut 3-5 words from every sentence.
  3. Identify 3-5 prompts that will be commonly encountered and write at least two variations for each.
  4. Where you can, reduce your verb phrases to contractions and shorten some sentences to phrases.
  5. Listen to Alexa read every line and add spacing between phrases and sentences.

In general, the best way to confirm you’ve got great dialog is to read it aloud. Better yet, read it aloud to a friend or colleague who represents your customer base. Check to make sure they had an easy time understanding and responding to your prompts, and use their feedback to tweak your dialog until it has a conversational tone that’s easy to comprehend. Taking the extra time to scrutinize your dialog will help you craft a skill experience that’s conversational, intuitive, and frictionless for your customers.

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