NOTE: This article has been updated on January 3rd, 2020, to reflect the latest advances with the Amazon Echo, Alexa Skills, and other relevant information.
I have a confession to make. I am in love with Alexa. “Alexa who?,” you ask? You know, THE Alexa. Amazon Echo’s Alexa. (Who could also be called Amazon or Echo.) I’m not ashamed of this. In fact, I embrace it. It fits perfectly with a big change in my life: being a parent of two young children. With one child age 2 and one child age 5, they take a lot of energy to keep up with.
This is why I love Alexa. It helps me do just a handful of important things while I’m entertaining the kids at the house:
- Play music
- Play the news
- Add to our shopping list
Seriously, that's it. Those 3 things are worth every penny I spent on the Echo. But this isn’t what I’m writing about today. Today I want to talk about my newbie experience developing Alexa Fact Skills.
When I first wrote this article, there were less than 1,000 Alexa Skills written for the Echo, at the time only providing a couple of hardware devices. Now there are over 70,000 Alexa Skills and dozens of Echo devices, both with and without screens. Amazon has put a lot of effort into making it very easy for you to create your own skills. Previously a developer had to use AWS and Lambda as well as the Amazon Developer portal to creat a skill. Now you can create an Alexa Skill without ever leaving the Amazon Developer portal, and this is what this Part I article will cover. Specifically, we will use their library of Blueprints to quickly and easily create a Fact Skill. In Part 2 and 3 I will dive deeper into Alexa Skills development and showcase some more interesting applications.
Alexa Skill Blueprints
Alexa Skill Blueprints are templates you can fill in, in order to quickly create a skill without any background in programming. Super handy and very easy to use. For this article, we will be building a Fact Skill using this Alexa Skill Blueprint.
I created my first Alexa Skill called My Spirit Animal. The My Spirit Animal Skill is basically this: You ask Alexa “Alexa, ask Oh Wise One, what is my spirit animal?” Oh Wise One will randomly pick an animal from a list of options, including a short description, and let the user know. Simple and entertaining. After that Skill I completed two more: Wiggly Words for learning interesting words and their corresponding definition, and Go Fish! which gives you random facts about fish. (I love everything about fish.)
Alexa Skill Facts Blueprint
The Alexa Skill Facts Blueprint is easy to navigate. Start here in order to create your own Alexa Facts Skill. The first step allows you to fill in content, like the introduction to the Skill, and all of your facts. You can add as many facts as you like. In the next step, you provide the Alexa Skill a name. This will be used to invoke your skill on your Alexa device. Once you decide on this name, you can click Create Skill. This will require you to sign in with you Amazon account that you currently use with your Amazon Echo (or for shopping or any other Amazon service). And that’s it!
I’m excited to move on to building more complicated Skills. For my current project I am pulling data from an external API to give more interesting answers to questions I ask my Echo, complete with Custom Slot Types to allow the user some variability on what type of information they are looking for. In Part 2 of this story I’ll talk about this skill and what I learned while building it.