When Amazon introduced Alexa, it changed how people interacted with devices. The convenience and ease of voice assistance has pushed this technology into nearly every new device, from laptops to even lawn mowers.
While Alexa comes equipped with a wide range of uses, small businesses can also take advantage of this technology through Amazon's Alexa for Business initiative, which provides resources and support for Alexa in the workplace. Business owners with Alexa devices, like the Echo, Echo Spot, Echo Dot or Echo Show, can use various voice commands to carry out important business tasks, like ordering new supplies or starting a video meeting. Businesses can also create their own skills with Alexa and use Amazon's APIs to build on existing interfaces.
Google reports that 20 percent of mobile searches in 2016 were voice searches, and Amazon holds 76 percent of the smart device voice assistance. And if a business has a skill, it can help promote your brand and reach that voice-searching audience. The trick is making sure your Alexa skill doesn't overlap with the competition.
Creating a customized skill with Alexa is a developer's task, so it's important to have a good handle on coding basics before you begin. Developers can use the Alexa Skills Kit to strategize and build new skills. The kit is a resource that provides step-by-step instructions. Depending on what you want to create, the Alexa interface supports Amazon's coding language Lambda. You'll also need an Amazon Developer account, which is a free service from Amazon.
Before you create an Alexa skill, it's a good idea to review what productivity skills are already out there. The skill you're looking to create may already exist, and you can install them to your Alexa devices through your Amazon account. Skills can range from calendar assistants to e-commerce platform plug-ins.
How to create a skill
Amazon separates Alexa's skills into various models, which include custom interactions, smart home skills, video skills, list skills and flash briefing skills. These pathways include varying support for developers. The flash briefing skills, for example, have a pre-built API that allows for more efficient skill-building while custom interaction skills require more legwork in defining terminology and the overall interaction model. This is the main difference between custom interactions and the rest of Amazon's skill models. Defining terminology and the interaction model can provide more flexibility, but it can also entail more work.
Custom interactions and skills
The difference between custom skills and other models lie in the beginning of the process. To create a custom skill, you need to define intents, invocation names and sample utterances. Intents are the overall actions you want Alexa to carry out, with sample utterances representing the specific words and phrases used to jumpstart an intent. The invocation name is used to identify the overall skill.
Amazon provides a breakdown of these terms and an example of a custom interaction skill on its website. It uses a skill for getting tide information from Tide Pooler where the intent is identified as "OneshotTideIntent."Credit: Amazon
In addition to defining the user interaction, you can also provide images, audio files and video files to accompany your skill. These can appear in the Alexa app and can help carry out the goal of your skill.
After defining the user interaction, you create a new skill in the developer console and continue building it. Amazon provides examples of custom skill structures as well as a step-by-step guide on creating custom skills that addresses each component and helps developers create new ones.
Custom skills through APIs
Using Amazon's pre-built models means you won't have to define the user interaction like in a custom interaction. This allows you to quickly build skills in Amazon's platform. The company breaks down each skill API so you can build business-specific skills in each.
Depending on the skill you need to create, there are several APIs to work from. Each has different instructions. If you're considering what kind of skill you want to create, it would be best to create one within one of these pathways and work from what Amazon has provided.
To get started, you need to have a background in web development or be willing to work with a developer. Amazon provides a lot of how-tos on its website, but it will likely be difficult to create your own skill with limited coding experience.
For small businesses, a lot of special skills have likely already been created and can be installed on Alexa devices through Amazon's website. There are endless use cases, ranging from controlling smart home devices, like lights, to contacting colleagues. [Interested in learning to code? Check out our Best Programming Certifications.]