The ultimate guide to creating an Alexa Skill (Part 1 — The idea)

The start of an adventure of sorts

I was recently turned onto the possibilities of developing voice apps for the Amazon Alexa.

I checked out a few demonstrations and found it to be quite interesting, and more importantly accessible for someone as code-illiterate as myself, thanks especially to Storyline a tool that helps novices create skills for Alexa.

It was pointed out that I could write a sort-of-journal about my experience learning how to create skills for Alexa, primarily for myself and hopefully, at some later date, helpful for someone else with similar ideas.

The first project to be made on Storyline

The first project I was given was a rather simple one. Create a skill that played just the one mantra, when the user invoked (shouting the name of the skill half-intelligibly across the room) the skill.

It would list some of the benefits of the mantra.

The user could, once the mantra starts, meditate to it.

The designated audio file was originally about 5 minutes long, and we had planned initially to loop the audio indefinitely till the user was finished meditating, or decide the music didn’t quite take them to quite the right space spiritually speaking, and would shout ‘stop’ at Alexa (the one constant of developing and using skills on Alexa), and the music would stop.

The Tool of choice for this venture

At this point it would be wise of me to give a brief intro to Storyline, the tool that I was to use to develop skills (apps whatever) for Alexa. The Amazon developer site has its own Alexa Skill Kit that users can use to develop any skill of their choice.

It involves creating an Intent (Amazon lingo for a voice command), that is to say the developer would type in what the end-user is expected to say to Alexa to get the magic to happen. Once the intent is specified, it is now up to the developer to link said intent to some actual code that through the wizardry of programming and foreign languages would create the desired output.

Commonly this magical bit is done on Amazon’s own Lambda services. It is at this point in the process that someone like me would back away from the computer holding out his silver cross in defence. Enter Storyline, as a sort of replacement for Amazon Lambda, does what Amazon Lambda does but with less code, more pretty boxes and pointy arrows.

It allows the user to develop a skill by simply creating a flowchart for the skill. The bare-bones of the skill. The logical skeleton.

And this tool, created by a duo of lovely guys based out of California — Vasili and Maksim, does all the weird codey bits for us and so good has their tool been that Amazon themselves supported their work by making it easier to upload the work done in Storyline to their developer site.

So what this does is that it takes out the technical requirements for a person to be a Alexa developer. And now all it takes is a good idea and a bit of persistence and a bit of support from the community, and you could create a skill that theoretically users around the world would use daily.

More on the Skill that I plan to develop

And that’s exactly the kind of skill that I’ve been tasked to develop. Music, that Alexa users can listen to while meditating.

This early on, in my fledgling Alexa-skill-developing career I’m still uncertain as to how a skill generates income. Obviously it would depend on how many users enable the skill.

Amazon is naturally pushing the idea of Alexa as being very similar to an individual, so you don’t download an app but enable a skill that Alexa will now have going forward, until the user decides this new Alexa, the one that plays yoga music like its no one’s business, is not to his/her liking and disables the skill.