It’s an exciting time for voice. Amazon’s Alexa has come into her own these last couple of years. Some analysts estimate as many as 8.2 million devices have been sold since late 2014. I personally find myself talking to Alexa multiple times a day, every day. It’s truly a remarkable feat of technology.
The engineer in me is fascinated by Alexa. And, being at Bottle Rocket where I work on the frontline of all things technology, I recently decided I wanted to write my own Alexa app, uhm I mean skill (which you’ll learn about later). Bottle Rocket promotes a learning culture, so I quickly tapped into other engineers and strategists here who were already tinkering (and in some cases, more than tinkering) with voice and lots of impressive things in the “personal digital assistant” space.
Much to my surprise, I found that even as a veteran engineer, I had some trouble following the conversation. While Alexa hasn’t even officially turned 3 yet, a whole vernacular has popped up around her that can be a little overwhelming.
So, before I rolled up my sleeves and started coding my first Alexa skill, I put together this handy little glossary of Alexa lingo.
Alexa Development Terminology
Except in the case of the Echo Tap, which has a physical button, Echo has multiple microphones that are always listening. Think of the device as being in standby mode. It is not fully activated and comprehending until you call out the wakeword. By default, this wakeword is “Alexa.” There are currently four other wakewords you can set on the device.
Skills are essentially apps for Alexa. The list of available skills for Alexa is growing every day. If you haven’t done so before, spend a few minutes browsing some of the most popular.
The invocation is the word or words used to identify a particular skill. I’ve heard it described as synonymous to an app name, but I think a better analogy is the app icon since you may choose to call your skill “Greatest Alexa Skill” but might settle on an invocation word that’s less of a mouthful, like “G.A.S.”
This one doesn’t directly relate to the spoken script with Alexa, but rather intent is the “what” in what are you trying to accomplish by speaking to Alexa in the first place.
Utterances represent the variances of spoken language and all the nuance that implies. Think of all the different ways someone might ask about the weather. What’s the weather? What’s my weather? What is my weather? What is the weather like? That list can get very long very quickly. Getting utterances right can be tough, but Amazon’s guidelines are helpful.
Slot is another word for what programmers and mathematicians call variables. If you think back to algebra, x in the equation 50+x=75 would be the variable. In Alexa’s vernacular x is the slot.
Developing for Alexa
Now that you know the terms in play, you can begin to see how they fit together.
Alexa, ask Southwest about my flight info.
<Respond with information about an upcoming flight>
Alexa, ask Coke Freestyle for today’s top mix.
<Respond with information about the most popular Freestyle mix for today’s date>
Alexa, tell NPR to remind me when Way With Words starts.
<Set a reminder for when the program “Way With Words” is scheduled to next air>
Eureka! Now you’re speaking Alexa!
Of course, a lot more goes into building a great voice experience than just understanding the terminology. Publishing an Alexa skill is a blending of engineering, strategy, and quality assurance. Amazon’s submission process requires knowledge of policy guidelines, cloud-based security, and a combination of functional and experiential testing. Lucky for you (and me), my colleagues here at Bottle Rocket have a head start.
I encourage you to schedule a demonstration of Bottle Rocket’s voice expertise. Even if you aren’t quite sure how an Alexa skill fits into your overall digital strategy, seeing some of the exciting work going on here will get the wheels turning