The developer of the hit “Spider Pig” and “Word of the Day” provides tips on building Alexa Skills that scale

Staff Writer Jun 22, 2023
Alexa Skills

Eduardo Fischer dos Santos had been a backend software engineer in Brazil for years when he decided he was ready for a change. When Amazon released its first Echo device in Brazil, Fischer recognized the incredible potential of conversational AI in people's everyday lives.

"I was between jobs and had some extra time," says Fischer. "I bought my first Echo and started developing skills soon after."

As he learned to develop for Alexa, Fischer drew on his experience using AWS services as a backend engineer. "My background and knowing the AWS stack certainly made it easier for me to develop Alexa skills," says Fischer.

Shifting from a hobbyist to a professional Alexa developer

Fischer began developing for Alexa as a hobby, but he soon saw the opportunity to build skills that many people would enjoy. "We didn't really have a lot of Alexa skills available in Portuguese, so I decided to develop some myself," says Fischer.

Fischer went on to create skills that provide motivational phrases, ambient and natural sounds, and educational content.

His first Alexa skill, Spider Pig, is a simple skill that prompts Alexa to sing funny songs in Portuguese. Another one of his skills, Word of the Day, provides a new word and its definition each day. A user can simply say, "Alexa, open Word of the Day" to learn about the latest word.

One of Fischer's most popular skills is Rain and Jazz Fireplace. With this, users can play ambient sounds, such as a fireplace and rain, along with soft music to create a relaxing ambiance. Fischer also leveraged the power of voice to create more inclusive experiences. His skill Movies for the Blind provides an important accessibility service, acting as a catalog of movies that feature audio descriptions so that people with vision impairments can more easily find them.

Fischer says that being able to create skills with limited resources, staff, or time is one of the most significant benefits of the technology. "These Alexa skills that I created reach hundreds of thousands of users," says Fischer. "And I was able to build them by myself in my spare time with just a computer."

Building Alexa skills that scale

So, what are the keys to designing successful skills at scale?

It starts with designing skills for ease of use, according to Fischer. That means prioritizing natural language and simple prompts. "Users don't want to have a scripted talk or a robotic interface; they want an experience that's as close to a human conversation as possible," says Fischer.

Fischer says commonly used words tend to be the most effective as prompts because the user doesn't have to learn new phrases: "You need to find a balance between how many specific activation phrases—versus just common words—to use."

Another factor that is critical to scale pertains to making sure your skill can be used by customers across as many locales as possible. Here's another reason to use simple words and phrases: they are easier to localize into different languages. When a skill becomes popular, it may pick up users around the world, many of whom speak different languages and have different expectations. Here's where good localization is critical.

"Don't try to make a direct translation," says Fischer. Instead, it's best to have a basic knowledge of each language, how people typically speak, and the way they might expect to interact with each other and their devices.

For example, a word or phrase might have strikingly different meanings to people in different countries. Customs can also affect users' expectations about voice-based interactions. A user in one country might expect to be addressed with a title such as "Mrs." or "Mr.," while users in another country might not.

Another key factor to take into account to scale an Alexa Skill's usage is to drive repeat customer engagement. Fischer's Word of the Day and Motivational Phrases skills are popular, he says, because people want to use them daily. "When designing a skill that you want to get a lot of engagement, you have to give customers reasons to keep coming back," Fischer says.

For example, Rain and Jazz Fireplace is a skill that people return to many times for background sounds, whether they're working, hosting a party, or just trying to relax. "Rain and Jazz Fireplace is a recognized experience," says Fischer. It's easier for users to simply ask Alexa than to open a smartphone app or computer and find the right sounds to mix.

Fischer plans to continue building entertaining and useful Alexa skills, and he's considering developing a game on Alexa next. "I want to help people have fun, laugh, and enjoy their time," he says.

With new technological developments, Fischer sees the possibilities of Alexa-powered experiences continuing to expand. Whether that's bringing conversational AI to more people through wider 5G internet access or expanding the potential for voice-based interactions in self-driving cars, he's excited about the future.

"Developing for Alexa has been rewarding," says Fischer. "It's allowed one person to do something that matters at a big scale. It's been a fun journey."

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