German healthcare provider BARMER uses Alexa to connect with customers

Staff Writer Jul 15, 2022
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BARMER Insurance and Services (BARMER) is a public healthcare provider based in Berlin, Germany. The company delivers medical benefits and services to approximately nine million members. However, due to strict regulations for healthcare providers in Germany, BARMER is restricted in the ways it can connect with its customers. 

Enter Alexa.

While working on a project to improve sleep quality, BARMER discovered an innovative way to connect with customers in an authentic and meaningful way. In April 2019, BARMER launched the Schlafenszeit skill, which plays relaxing sounds across four unique categories to help customers fall and stay asleep. 

For Schlafenszeit, BARMER won the 2019 German Design Award. The skill has exploded in popularity and serves over 20,000 unique users daily.

Reaching healthcare customers in Germany

Compared to other countries, the German healthcare market is unique. Most citizens are enrolled under a state-funded public health insurance option. Public healthcare providers in Germany need to meet strict regulations when it comes to how they can market to customers. 

“We have limited ways to market our service, and differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” says Robin Meijerink, digital marketing manager at BARMER. “So we focused on using Alexa to engage with them in a way that betters their health.”

BARMER had been working with a professor from a leading university sleep lab to help customers develop healthier lifestyles. After reviewing the expert’s advice and documentation, the company decided to build an Alexa skill that focuses on sleep.

By building the Alexa skill, BARMER could promote improved sleep hygiene, while at the same time, engaging with customers in a way that adheres to German healthcare regulations. “BARMER is always keen on adopting new, exciting technologies,” says Meijerink. “We decided to give Alexa a try. It is an understatement to say that the skill has been a massive success.”

Using Alexa to develop the Schlafenszeit Skill

Schlafenszeit, which translates to “bedtime” in English, plays high-quality sounds and stories to help customers fall asleep and develop healthy routines. The skill’s sounds are divided into four unique categories: Relaxation Music, a playlist of soft, calming music; Soundscapes, a playlist of ambient sounds like wind chimes or white noise; Counting Sheep, a series of narrations that guide users in counting objects; and Dream Journeys, a series of six guided stories where users can immerse themselves in different worlds, such as “mountain worlds” or “water worlds.” Dream Journeys is the skill’s most popular feature, used by 33 percent of Schlafenszeit users.

The BARMER team started development in January 2019 and launched the first version of Schlafenszeit in April 2019. To build the skill, the company used  Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). BARMER developers were able to use Alexa documentation to guide them as they created the skill. In particular, they copied and pasted code snippets from ASK Software Development Kits and customized them to fit their needs. As a result, no recoding was necessary to build key components of Schlafenszeit, such as its dialog model, which encompasses the interactions between the user and the skill’s backend system. 

Throughout the development process, the Alexa team was available to provide guidance and feedback to BARMER. “We would check in with the Alexa team about how key performance indicators were coming along,” says Meijerink. “They give us suggestions, such as new features that we might want to apply to the skill.” 

Additionally, the ASK SDKs made it simple for BARMER to use Amazon Web Services (AWS) solutions for Schlafenszeit’s infrastructure. Because the company did not need to build its own infrastructure, its developers were able to get a prototype for Schlafenszeit up and running in a matter of weeks. To give example of how the company uses AWS, BARMER stores the skill’s audio files on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), an object storage service offering industry-leading scalability, data availability, security, and performance.

When a customer asks Schlafenszeit a question, the skill connects to AWS Lambda, a serverless, event-driven compute service. BARMER uses AWS Lambda to process the customer’s request, and play back the correct response, facilitating a seamless user experience. 

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Expanding Schlafenszeit’s capabilities for customers 

After the initial success, the company is now focusing on expanding the skill’s offerings. “We listened to customer feedback and developed a road map for 2022,” says Meijerink. “

The company is adding new music to Relaxation Music as well as new sounds to Soundscapes, such as forest sounds. BARMER is creating new variations for Counting Sheep as well, such as a feature that counts celebrities headed to a royal wedding. 

Using Alexa, BARMER can connect with its customers in an effective and useful way. “We’re always looking for new ways to engage and get in contact with customers, which was one of the goals for the Schlafenszeit skill,” says Meijerink. “Alexa was the right choice for this project.”

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