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November 06, 2019Jennifer King
Today is an exciting day for Alexa and the voice developer community—Alexa turns 5 years old. When we first launched Alexa in 2014, she only knew how to do 13 things. Now she can do so much more, from planning a night out to identifying grocery items for visually impaired customers. Today she has more than 100,000 skills, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of developers and device makers from around the world building with Alexa. Thank you all for your ideas and contributions that have helped customers make Alexa part of their daily lives.
In honor of Alexa’s birthday, we asked a few skill developers to share their reflections on voice and what it’s been like building with Alexa over the last several years. Here are some of the insights they shared.
Customers interact with Alexa billions of times each week to get things done. Alexa helps them get information, control their smart home devices, or get entertainment through their favorite streaming services. Voice technology is changing the way people interact with the world, and developers are shaping its future.
“Part of what keeps me engaged with voice is what got me started: voice is such a natural, intuitive, and personal interface that it can feel like magic when using it, and I love the idea of delivering that experience to users,” says Steven Arkonovich.
Along with delighting customers with an intuitive voice experience, developers are motivated by how their skills are helping customers every single day. For example, many people who use Nick Schwab’s sleep sounds skills have left positive feedback, signaling that the skills have become essential to getting a good night's rest.
“Knowing that my skills have improved people’s lives, and that they have the potential to help many more, is what I find most inspiring and keeps me building for voice,” says Schwab.
In addition to reaching and helping customers, Alexa gives developers the opportunity to become early adopters of the latest voice technologies. As new features and capabilities are added to the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), developers can further enhance their skills to drive deeper engagement with customers. Arkonovich says he “can’t resist trying new features” to expand his skills.
“I enjoy the challenge of learning a new feature and figuring out how it can best be incorporated into my existing skills, like in-skill purchasing (ISP), the Alexa Presentation Language (APL), and the Proactive Events API and notifications, to name a few,” says Kesha Williams.
Conversational AI signals a huge advancement in the way we interact with computers. Unlike menus, touchscreens, or mouse clicks, using our voice to have conversations is one of the most natural ways to use a computer. This new method of human-computer interaction makes powerful computer applications even easier to use and accessible to more people.
This idea of being able to have a conversation with a machine has been around for some time, but historically, machines have had a hard time understanding the human language and using it as a tool for communication.
According to Williams, Alexa’s advancements within conversational AI have “literally changed the game,” and it’s only the beginning. Developers are building Alexa skills that are more and more conversational, driving more engagement with customers.
“The advent of the cloud, advancements in natural language understanding (NLU) and natural language modeling, and text-to-speech technology have taken conversational AI to the next level and opened doors for making Alexa respond in a more human way,” says Williams.
Being able to detect a user’s frustration from their tone of voice along with the words spoken is another significant, newly developing capability, says Arkonovich. With advancements like Frustration Detection with Alexa, which is rolling out in the US next year, Alexa understands the tone and inflection of the customer, and can acknowledge when the customer is frustrated with a response to their request, like a person would.
“For the skill experience to deliver what the customer is asking for, it needs to understand what the customer intends to utter in certain words,” says Arkonovich. “Getting at the emotion behind the words can be an important part of this.”
Customers already use Alexa on more than 100 million devices from Amazon and third-party device manufacturers, as well as the Alexa app on iOS and Android. With the release of new devices like Echo Auto, Echo Buds, Echo Frame, and Echo Loop, it’s even easier for customers to talk to Alexa no matter where they are. Customers can now also automatically invoke skills using Alexa Routines based on time of day, location, and other triggers.
According to Adva Levin, these scenarios will push developers to consider new use cases when building new skills, and how customers communicate differently when driving or commuting, for example.
“I'm incredibly excited to see Alexa grow outside of the home over the next 5 years and open up a whole new category of contextually-aware skills built for new devices,” says Schwab. “These new environments will spark even more innovation from third-party developers.”
Along with more opportunities for innovation, developers say the next 5 years will bring even more advancements in conversational AI and speech recognition.
“Five years from now, Alexa will become a truly conversational interface, bringing a lot of disparate skills together into a seamless experience to help the user,” says Arkonovich. “When you bring together a lot of separate skills in an intelligent way, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It will be a real transformation.”
“I see even more improvements in Alexa’s speech recognition,” says Drew Cosgrove. “The day voice technology can specifically identify your voice from other peoples’ voices, and understand your speech with almost 100% accuracy (even in a noisy environment), voice will come in as the path of least resistance for the majority of human-computer interactions.”
“Voice interfaces offer an intimate, human-like experience, which traditional mediums like smartphone and computer apps simply can't offer, so there's still much for us to learn! Start with simple voice experiences and iterate based on customer feedback and real-world observations.”
– Nick Schwab, Founder of Invoked Apps
“It is easy to transition your knowledge of software engineering, web development, or coding to building with Alexa because you’re starting with a great foundation. You’re able to use some of the more popular programming languages to author the back-end code for your skill. I would say that developing for voice is a bit different. You always have to maintain the mindset of ‘voice first, screen second,’ which is a paradigm shift for most of us.”
– Kesha Williams, Software Engineer
“Sometimes Alexa will mishear what the user has said. Your skill needs to be able to handle these situations gracefully. Design your voice interface carefully, keep it simple, ‘nudge’ users to use specific responses, keep the verbiage concise, test your skill, and monitor usage analytics to constantly improve.”
– Drew Cosgrove, Senior IT Architect
"Try to spot use cases that haven't been made yet or aren't too crowded in the Alexa Skills Store, and think of how they can work as a truly conversational, voice-first experience.”
– Adva Levin, Founder & CEO of Pretzel Labs
“Find a use case that fits with voice. Once you find that use case, pay attention to voice design. When designing visually, like for a web page, you'd ask of each visual element, ‘What is this element doing for the user? Should it be here or someplace else? Does it help, is it distracting, and does it fit with other elements on the page?’ Similarly, when designing for voice, you need to ask about each word, ‘What is it doing? Is it necessary or distracting? Does it fit with the overall design of the experience?’ Voice is a new design paradigm. Pay attention to it!”
– Steven Arkonovich, Founder of Philosophical Creations
As we look toward the next 5 years, we’re excited about the advancements to come that will make Alexa even more conversational, smarter, and more natural. We’re equally excited about what the developer community will create to make Alexa more useful and engaging for customers across a plethora of new devices and use cases. Thank you for being part of Alexa’s journey for the past 5 years. We can’t wait to see what you build next. To learn more about how you can get started with the Alexa Skills Kit, click here.