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February 12, 2018Jennifer King
From the moment she discovered Alexa in her employer’s innovations lab, Jess Williams says she knew voice design would be her future.
“I had this ‘wow’ moment and immediately started thinking of all the potential applications for voice technology,” says Williams. “I knew the opportunity for voice designers and developers was going to be huge, and I wanted to be part of it.”
At only 27, Williams became the co-founder and CEO of Opearlo, one of the first voice design agencies in the United Kingdom. Today, she enjoys a thriving business helping big brand clients reach customers through engaging voice experiences with Alexa.
After Amazon introduced the Echo in the US in 2015, Williams’ employer shipped two of the devices to the UK. After working on a prototype Alexa skill for the company, Williams says she and Alexa Champion Oscar Merry started building for Alexa in 2015, and were immediately hooked. A year later, the duo launched their voice agency, which has quickly evolved to designing Alexa skills for large clients and brands.
“The opportunity that voice presents for developers is undeniable,” says Williams. “For me, it’s fun to be part of something destined to be the next big thing.”
The first Alexa skill Williams designed was LifeBot, a productivity skill to help users with basic daily activities. She says her original vision was for LifeBot to be the “one skill” to help users manage their calendar, set up text reminders, and find their phone, along with advanced features to guide users through daily meditation and yoga exercises.
That sounded like a good idea; however, as she grew as a voice designer, she realized the voice user interface (VUI) design would be simpler if these features were in separate skills. More importantly, by presenting the customer with fewer choices to remember, it would improve the user experience.
“Designing for voice is not like designing a visual experience, where you can present a lot of options on the screen to pick from,” says Williams. “Simpler is better, so we had to take a step back and refactor LifeBot into separate skills.”
Williams says she also learned that using a variety of different voices drives higher engagement, especially in skills where there is a lot of dialog. For Easy Yoga and Easy Meditation, for example, instead of having Alexa read a script, Williams had the dialog professionally vocalized and recorded. Williams has also experimented with Amazon Polly to provide multiple voices for a kids skill she designed called Panda Rescue.
“It’s all part of learning what engages users,” says Williams. “Alexa’s voice is great, but if the user is going to have a long session with your skill, it is really important to think about the audio production.”
Besides the LifeBot skills, Williams is excited by the challenge of designing more complex Alexa skills for some big-name brands. That includes Recipedia for Unilever, which they built to coincide with the launch of Echo Show in the UK.
Williams says she designed the skill so users can ask Alexa to find recipes in any of ten categories and various difficulty levels. The skill then displays step-by-step cooking instructions on Echo Show.
“It’s exciting to have partnered with a huge brand like Unilever, and also to have been a launch partner for Echo Show in the UK,” says Williams. “It tells me that concentrating on voice design was the right choice.”
Williams says the primary revenue-generating model for her voice agency is building Alexa skills for clients. But she also receives money for her engaging skills via the Amazon Developer Rewards program. Under this program, Amazon rewards the developers of top-performing custom Alexa skills based on customer engagement. According to Williams, they’ve received rewards for most of the LifeBot skills, but Find My Phone, Easy Yoga, and Easy Meditation have been most successful.
“It felt really great to find out we qualified for the rewards,” says Williams, “It inspires us and drives us to design even better skills, both for ourselves and our clients.”
Besides growing a successful business, Williams is passionate about encouraging more women to get involved in technology and software development, especially with Alexa.
“I've been to a lot of developer events where I am the only woman there,” says Williams. “It is still quite a male-oriented industry, where we have a lack of role models for women.”
As an entrepreneur herself, Williams works hard to serve as that role model.
“If we have more women entrepreneurs, young girls will see them and be motivated to get into that space as well,” says Williams. “Once they do, they’ll find there's so many resources out there to help them, especially with voice and Alexa.”
Williams is also a big proponent of design workshops, many of which she teaches. She wants to inspire the women who attend to be part of the development community.
“It’s important for women to feel inspired and to surround themselves with other women that inspire them, whether or not it is in technology,” says Williams. “I want to inspire more women to get involved in voice because it is such a new and exciting space. I truly believe there’s going to be a growing need for voice designers and developers going forward.”
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