Amazon’s Alexa

Voice Interface design is getting big. If you are an iPhone user you might use Siri on a daily basis, maybe you prefer the recording feature rather than texting, or maybe you have Alexa at home. Either way, you are using your voice to get things done.

And there is a voice who responds.

I don’t know if you are an active voice command user, but I’m not. I guess I just need to get used to it -used to talk to a machine. We are experiencing our own kind of sci fi movie (well, it is not fiction anymore).

As a designer, stay up to date is a must. We not only need to learn and understand new ways of interaction, but to design solutions accordingly.

Attending hackathons gives you good opportunities to learn from others, work with them and value their work. And vice versa. So last Saturday I was at an Alexa hackathon.

We heard about Alexa, how the system works, and what was expected from us during the day. Amazon is giving everybody a chance to built Alexa’s skills, they even send you an Echo if you develop 3 of them within 30 days.

Big names like Uber or Yelp! are investing on it. You can now order food, a car, groceries and more with only your voice.

That’s crazy! Imagine what our grandparents would say if we went back in time and told them this was going to happen in the future. Most likely they would not believe a word we say. And that’s just somewhat around 50 years ago.

Doc, from Back to the Future.

How does Alexa works?

  • Alexa listens for 8 seconds, it is not constantly listening to all you say.
  • Alexa wakes up to certain words or commands.
  • After a response, Alexa would continue only if you continue. If not it would go back to “sleep”.
  • Works better when asked short questions and/or commands.
  • Alexa keeps learning the more you use it.

How did the team work?

During the process I realized something imperative, we needed to ask ourselves: how do humans ask questions? and what do we expect in return?

Before even start designing, the team decided to run a low fi prototype. A person would act as the machine and the other one would act as the user. That way we could see the interaction in a rough natural form.

Machine-user interaction.

From there we sketched the user flow and the conversation. With a template similar to this.

It is important to consider all the possible ways you can talk to Alexa. For example, if you want to hear a joke you can say:

  • Alexa tell me a joke.
  • Tell me a joke Alexa.
  • Knock, knock.
  • Alexa I want to hear a joke

Both designers and developers need to come up with several commands or intents. The same with the rest of the conversation. But let’s not forget that it is not magic, you CAN let Alexa have constraints.

The skill we built was for people who wanted to exercise. Alexa would give them a task to do and if you wanted another you could ask or stop at any time.

The other teams Alexa skills

  • A game like clue.
  • A flashcard game but with music clips. (the winner)
  • A countdown for specific things like a movie release, or the end of the world.
  • Citi Bike availability. (my favorite)
  • MTA delays.
  • A Twister spinner. (we all liked this one)

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