With zero coding experience, John Gillilan never expected to find life-changing success building Alexa skills. A veteran of digital video at Maker Studios and The Walt Disney Company, Gillilan started as an avid Alexa user and then quickly discovered the value of combining voice technology with his love of digital media.
“For this next leap in my career, I wanted to take what I learned from the video community and bring it to voice,” says Gillilan. “And the more I explored building for Alexa, the more I began to appreciate the creative possibilities presented by this new medium.”
Today, Gillilan heads up bondad.fm, a thriving voice design consultancy that creates highly engaging multimodal skills for Alexa. Recently named a finalist in the Alexa Skills Challenge: Life Hacks with creative partner Katy Boungard, their skill Chop Chop went on to receive Best Skill Designed for Echo Show and Echo Spot. That award earned Gillilan and his design partner Katy Boungard a $10,000 cash prize and industry recognition, which further enables Gillilan to grow his voice business. Watch this video to learn more about Chop Chop.
Gillilan has published more than 20 engaging Alexa skills, including Music Sandwich for kids and a number of variants on Vintage Video that explore how archival content can be reimagined for voice. And according to Gillilan, a recently named an Alexa Champion, he has just begun to tap into the enormous opportunities of combining Alexa with other digital media to create voice-first experiences customers will love.
“As creative producers, we create content with the user experience and audience in mind,” says Gillilan. “I see a huge opportunity for developers, engineers, writers, producers, and marketers to use their skills to make amazing voice experiences.”
A Technology Outsider Ventures into Developing for Voice
Gillilan gained much of his digital media experience at Maker Studios, a multi-channel YouTube network later purchased by Disney. There he gained invaluable insight into the creation and distribution of video for digital audiences, and was intrigued with the potential to bring this experience to the voice community.
“Because of my sound and music background, I was already drawn to the opportunities surrounding voice,” says Gillilan. “But I wasn’t from the world of technology or development. I realized if I was serious about pursuing a voice business, I had to roll up my sleeves and get into the sandbox, so to speak.”
For Gillilan, that sandbox turned out to be an Alexa Dev Days event. Dev Days are live, hands-on events that provide training to those seeking to learn to build or improve Alexa skills. However, walking into a room of software developers made the coding novice a little self-conscious. Gillilan knew he had a lot to learn and, at first, felt like a complete outsider. After the event, Gillilan began to experiment with building simple skills, with each being a stepping stone toward building more advanced skills.
“For me, going to that Alexa seminar was a big step because when I entered the room, I felt like I didn’t belong,” says Gillilan. “But at the same time, realizing I had so much to learn gave me no shame about asking questions. And I asked plenty.”
Designing Voice-First Experiences for Devices with Screens
By the time Amazon announced the Alexa Skills Challenge: Life Hacks, Gillilan felt ready to take on a bigger challenge. He teamed up with Boungard, a former colleague at Maker and Disney, and together they collaborated on a new type of voice experience. They combined Gillilan’s new skill-building talent, Boungard’s experience in creative development for branded digital content, and both their expertise in video media to design a skill for Echo Show and Echo Spot. The result was a multimodal, visually engaging skill called Chop Chop.
Chop Chop takes what many find a mundane kitchen chore–chopping fruits and vegetables—and turns it into an informative yet highly engaging experience. Customers can ask Alexa to show them how to chop the veggie of their choice, while keeping their hands on the cutting board. This hands-free interaction is one of many reasons Chop Chop is so popular. Users don’t have to fiddle with keys on their laptop or touch a tablet screen with dirty hands to engage with the skill.
“You’re always creating with the audience in mind,” says Boungard. “In this case, we wanted to simplify chopping without having to touch a screen so users can keep their eyes on the task. And we worked to meld everything we’d learned through video and content development as well as our love of sound, music, and audio.”
That doesn’t mean everything was always smooth sailing as the two developed Chop Chop. After focusing on such high-quality video production and scripts, they determined their skill relied too much on the screen. The customer experience must remain voice first across all Alexa-enabled devices, with or without screens. It was also a key criteria of the Alexa Skills Challenge Gillilan and Boungard were competing in.
At the 11th hour, they developed 75 more voice scripts and created a whole new set of vibrant sound and media assets. The result was an instructional skill on the art of chopping that users of any Alexa device can use—but further enhanced by the display capabilities of devices with screens. For Gillilan and Boungard, though, the reward was more than just receiving Best New Skill Design for Echo Show & Echo Spot and the publicity that followed. After all their hard work on Chop Chop, it was recognition by a supportive development community of a major milestone moment.
Voice-First Experiences: The New Business Model for bondad.fm
Both Gillilan and Boungard are now firm advocates for building voice-first experiences, as well as leaders in the Alexa skills development community.
“The success of Chop Chop has inspired us to see how these devices can help people in everyday life,” says Boungard. “I’m now interested in what voice can do for us in the kitchen, in the closet, how people get ready for work, or any of life’s other daily tasks.”
As for the future for bondad.fm, Gillilan plans to continue building creative voice experiences that help others. In fact, the company name exudes this philosophy since bondad is Spanish for “goodness.” Gillilan feels fortunate that his personal journey led him to voice and now has an expanded vision for bondad.fm. He continues to publish new skills and is currently collaborating with the NFL’s Digital Media Lab to create new voice-first experiences for the league.
“Every day I’m inspired by the voice community and by the impact of this technology on digital culture,” says Gillilan. “More so than ever, culture and technology are inseparably intertwined.”
Build Skills, Earn Developer Perks
Bring your big idea to life with Alexa and earn perks through our milestone-based developer promotion. US developers, publish your first Alexa skill by October 31, 2018, and earn the new Echo Dot. Publish a multimodal skill for Alexa-enabled devices with screens and earn an Echo Spot. Publish a skill using the Gadgets Skill API and earn a 2-pack of Echo Buttons. If you're not in the US, check out our promotions in Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan, France, Australia, and India. Learn more about our promotion and start building today.