The philosopher David Hume famously said “Although we are capable of separating and combining our simple ideas as we please, there is, nevertheless, a regular order to our thoughts.” These words have inspired a generation of philosophers. The logical approach that inspired Hume to “to introduce the experimental method into moral subjects” inspired Steven Arkonovich to start developing skills for Alexa.
Since 2000, Arkonovich has been a philosophy professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, specializing in 18th-century ethics. He is also the developer known as Philosophical Creations, the development company behind the successful Alexa skill Big Sky, which provides the world’s most accurate hyper-local forecasts.
“Going from a background in philosophy to coding was actually pretty straightforward,” Arkonovich says. “It wasn’t much of a leap. The coding itself requires a lot of formal structure and care. That part is a natural fit to the way my mind works and philosophical training.”
Exploring Alexa skill development as a novice coder
In 2017, Arkonovich went on a sabbatical at his University and took an introductory computer science course online. Intrigued by the opportunity to code, he began his first foray into developing content for Alexa.
“I thought that it would be great if Alexa could answer weather questions, beyond just giving a forecast,” says Arkonovich. “What is customers could actually converse with Alexa with follow up information and get more detailed information about the weather? Alexa seemed like a good way to get that level of insight.”
Arkonovich developed Big Sky, an Alexa Skill that gives near-real-time weather forecasts for specific locations worldwide. Big Sky answers customer questions such as the amount of rain at an exact hour or address. Over time, Arkonovich added advanced graphics capabilities to the skill, such as live radar and air quality reports.
“It’s highly configurable so that you can personalize it,” Arkonovich says. “It really stands out because customers can customize the forecast and select what they want their forecast to include.”
In addition to the free offering, customers can subscribe to Big Sky Premium Edition for special features, including live worldwide radar, the addition of labels to favorite locations, and custom weather alerts. Millions of customers have asked Big Sky a question since its launch in 2018.
“The sense of creating a thing that works for so many people is kind of magical, and I encourage everyone to dive in and build something small that they’re interested in,” says Arkonovich. “Amazon has done so much to make the skill-building experience accessible to people with little or no coding skills. You can build something and interact with Alexa devices in a way that you created.”
Boosting customer engagement with a popular skill using Alexa Widgets
Arkonovich had been in the first group of Alexa Champions, a recognition program to honor the community’s most engaged developers and contributors. In July 2021, Amazon Alexa selected Arkonovich as a beta tester for Alexa Widgets, which display essential information about a skill and lets customers perform quick actions without leaving the current screen or being asked for updates. “I’m always trying to take advantage of these cool innovations that Amazon is constantly rolling out for Alexa,” says Arkonovich. “And Alexa Widgets seemed like a natural fit for Big Sky, for a weather app, and for devices with screens. Using Alexa Widgets, customers can have the weather showing constantly on the screen.”
To add Widgets to skills, developers use Alexa Presentation Language, which lets developers build interactive voice and visual experiences across the device landscape. Customers can add Widgets directly from the Widget Gallery and display up to 10 Widgets in their Widget Panel.
“There’s no doubt that Widgets were incredibly popular the moment they were introduced,” says Arkonovich. “I could not believe how many people installed Widgets right away. It doubled my customer base almost instantaneously.”
Arkonovich had to tweak his code to handle the onslaught of customer traffic. Rather than update weather information live from APIs, Arkonovich used caching to stagger updates enough to accommodate surges in use.
Improving the customer experience through Alexa Widgets
Arkonovich uses Alexa Widgets to improve the customer experience, providing a way for Big Sky customers to receive detailed weather information quickly and visually.
The Widget provides standard weather information, such as temperature highs and lows, alongside a summary in natural language. Customers tap the Widget to access a full weather report. “You see the weather without hearing Alexa’s voice or having to talk to Alexa,” says Arkonovich. “It’s about flexibility in how people want to engage with the skill.” For example, a customer might not want to speak out loud first thing in the morning. Or they might need to access weather information silently to avoid disturbing someone nearby.
Big Sky Premium subscribers can access Big Sky Premium Widgets, which support two locations. For example, a customer can display weather information for home and a favorite vacation spot. “Alexa Widgets make a lot of sense for skills that have frequently updated information, like news, weather, or games where positions on the leaderboard change,” Arkonovich says. “The Widget shows updated information at a glance. Customers don’t have to go into the full skill experience, yet they’re still aware of the skill and have a simple way to launch the experience if they want.”
Citing Amazon’s commitment to incorporate large language models into Alexa, Arkonovich expects Alexa skills to become increasingly personalized, and voice assistance will become ever more integrated into customers’ daily lives. While continuing his job as a philosophy professor, Arkonovich will keep implementing new features into his Philosophical Creations. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that my experience with Alexa has been life changing,” Arkonovich says. “I’ve learned so much about development, what it’s like to build something that people use, and maintain it and iterate. I’ve become part of a new community. It’s been a wonderful experience.”