We shouldn’t take Alexa for granted. While Amazon’s intelligent assistant may seem capable of answering our every whim and inquiry, it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes development to make it happen. Just ask Distillery Android Developer Dmitry Sitnikov.
Sitnikov recently attended Amazon’s Alexa Dev Days event in Austin, Texas. He found the half-day session very helpful overall, with well-constructed, easy-to-follow examples and Amazon developers from all areas (e.g., cloud services, tools, Alexa) available to assist. Sitnikov recommends the session primarily for developers and other professionals who want to write Alexa skills from scratch, or those who don’t have prior experience. Based on all he learned at the event, Sitnikov reflects, “It’s easier than ever to start.”
Intel sponsors Amazon’s Alexa Dev Days events. The free, interactive events feature hands-on workshops, live demos, and networking opportunities. Events are held across the United States and around the world. Though their exact format varies by city, they always feature Alexa experts and the latest information on UI design and industry trends. The overall purpose is to help developers and designers learn to create Alexa-powered voice experiences.
Sitnikov pinpoints four key takeaways from his Alexa Dev Days experience:
- Amazon is pushing hard to catch up with Google in the area of machine-learning-based conversational applications working on top of Alexa (“skills”). This is the only area in which Amazon still lags behind. Sitnikov explains, “While Amazon is still far ahead in terms of quantity, most experts admit Google’s quality is better.” Amazon aims to fix that.
- As a result, Amazon has introduced several new features that simplify the process of building voice apps. For example, they’ve given developers more tools to store session data to let the app “know” the user. They’ve also introduced “fallbacks” to help apps better handle unexpected cases.
- They’ve made a big step forward in improving their tools for voice app developers. Sitnikov explains, “They now offer a fully functional command line interface for setting up a project and easily deploying it to the Amazon cloud. They also created a plugin for the popular Visual Studio Code application that lets developers create, change, and publish apps from a single integrated developer environment (IDE).”
- They’re focused on providing tutorials that help developers design truly conversational voice apps. This helps developers avoid a purely technical approach that leads to apps that look like those universally hated customer service phone menus.
Sitnikov’s favorite session was focused on voice conversation design. The session reinforced that:
- Conversation design takes at least twice as much time as actual coding. As Sitnikov relates, “Design is always the most difficult component, because people think and talk differently than you might expect. Your app needs to be ready to handle deviations from your ideal script.”
- To improve design, it’s crucial to imagine as many different user scenarios as possible. Create detailed user roles — just as a user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) designer would — by imagining real customers and their range of possible responses.
- Prepare for deviations by breaking your script at as many places as you can. Ideally your script should include several breakpoints between different phrases. Imagine all possible directions a response could take, developing responses for each. For example, if a food-ordering app asks for a preferred cuisine and the user responds, “I don’t care,” the app should handle that gracefully, making a choice on the user’s behalf. In this way, developers can develop a list of deviations that supports the app in handling the majority of conversations.
Sitnikov’s primary networking opportunity came in the form of the hands-on workshop. Participants formed teams to design apps and ultimately showcase their prototypes. Working with both technical and nontechnical professionals, Sitnikov helped to develop one of the award-winning prototypes. His team brought home new Alexa Spot devices!
Distillery’s development team has been fortunate to work with several clients (e.g., nēdl) to integrate Alexa voice technology. We participate in events like Alexa Dev Days to help us stay well-informed about voice technology best practices and trends. After all, voice holds tremendous potential for businesses. We’re excited to see what’s next for voice! Alexa, what can you teach us tomorrow?
Ekaterina Kudievskaia is excited to be part of Distillery’s marketing team. With a background in education, operations, and sales, she’s known as a proven problem-solver, team-builder, and collaborator. Ekaterina loves to travel and is enjoying learning to snowboard.