Case Study

Amazon
Building voice-first experiences through the Alexa Skills hackathon

Amazon

Based in Seattle (WA), Amazon is an electronic ecommerce and cloud computing company founded by Jeff Bezos. The tech giant is one of the largest internet retailers in the world. The amazon.com website started as an online bookstore and later diversified to sell software, electronics, apparel, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry. The company also produces consumer electronics — Kindle e-readers, Fire Tablets, Fire TV,  and Echo — and is the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services.

Amazon Alexa, the cloud-based voice service that powers Amazon Echo, provides access to thousands of skills which enable customers to “voice-control” their world — be it controlling smart home devices, listening to music hands-free or to the news, or even ordering a pizza. The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) is a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation, and code samples that make it fast and easy for developers to add skills to Alexa.

Experiences designed around the human voice will fundamentally improve the way people use technology. We are definitely at the tipping point of a voice-first era. The Alexa Skills Hackathon with HackerEarth showcases the potential of the developer community in India to build voice skills for Alexa.

– Dilip R.S., Country Manager, Alexa Skills Kit, Amazon

The “why” behind the Alexa Skills hackathon

Alexa, the voice service behind Amazon Echo, is changing how a consumer interacts with technology. With Alexa being able to pick up multiple roles — anything from a concierge or a sous chef to a fitness coach or a DJ — every time a new skill is added, the Alexa Skills hackathon was aimed at building even more skills for Alexa to make it smarter.

The goal of the hackathon was to educate developers about Alexa. Amazon wanted to get them to experience building skills for Alexa for the first time. Most developers are used to the traditional hackathon which requires them to search for novel solutions or build new projects. This hackathon was different as it required developers to build a skill by taking into account the certification requirements and Alexa’s capabilities. To bring their big idea to life with voice, participants were given a chance to use the Alexa Skills Kit. The participants had to build voice-first experiences to engage and delight every user. The end goal was to get as many skills(applications) on Alexa as possible.

What was the theme of the hackathon?

The Alexa Skills Hackathon revolved around the theme of open innovation. Open innovation through crowdsourcing is a great way to access a wide range of ideas. Amazon leveraged HackerEarth’s 1.9 million-strong developer community to come up with ideas around business productivity solutions, cool games, smart home skills, and more that would delight an Alexa customer.

The Outcome

4380 Registrations

3757 Teams

807 Idea Submissions

84 New Live Skills

Popular skills developed

  • Games – Skills for games ranging from traditional ones such as “Chidia Ud” and “Kaun Banega Millionaire” to contemporary ones such as “The fallen chemist” and “Master of animals”
  • Education – Skills such as “Science Wizard,” “Speedy Mathematician,” and “Vedic Maths”
  • Health and Fitness – Skills such as “Smart 5-minute workout” and “Mindful breathing”
  • Lifehacks – Skills on daily productivity apps such as finding the train status, saving passwords, and finding info on the Delhi metro

The hackathon saw several new skills developed, especially in the games category. Almost 29% of the skills were game themed. There were a total of 84 new live skills at the end of the hackathon, with 3 skills being adjudged the winners. The winning skills have also been promoted on the Amazon Alexa store.

The hackathon helped increase the Alexa skill store base with some good quality skills. We have promoted the winning skills on the Amazon Alexa store and expect more customers to engage with these skills in the future.

– Tom George, Marketing Manager, India – Amazon Alexa

The winning skills

The skills which made the final cut:

The Ganga Quest

This skill is based on a mythical journey along the Ganga (River Ganges) in search of the missing section of the Panchatantra, tales of practical wisdom from ancient India. This is a non-linear storytelling game where the user’s choices can change the outcome of the game. This decision-making game allows users to embark on a journey and work toward finding the missing book.

K.B.M Game

The skill helps users stay abreast of the latest happenings around the world and improve their general knowledge. This multiple choice question-based skill provides users with a 50–50 lifeline. The skill also enables users to pick up exactly where they left off.

Mindful Breathing

The objective of this skill is to make people aware of what breathing properly means and how important it is for all of us. This skill helps people practice different types of breathing exercises and get the most out of them. In the first stage “Learn,” people learn how to practice certain breathing exercises. In the second stage “Apply,” users can practice what they learned.

Hear from the winner

This is what Ashish Jha, one of the winners of the Alexa skills hackathon, had to say about his experience at the hackathon and more.

I have been working on Alexa Skills since November 2017 and have devoted most of my time for this. I am also an active participant in hackathons and tech events. So, when HackerEarth announced it was going to host India’s first ever Alexa Skills Hackathon, it was kind of a dream come true — a competition where I would have a chance to demonstrate whatever I had learned in the last few months. I haven’t been this excited about any other event.

Learning and building skills on Alexa is quite easy. There are thousands of developers and also many people who don’t come from a programmatic background making amazing skills for Alexa every day. When I started learning about Alexa, there weren’t many resources or tutorials to follow. So, I had to take the tough route, asking questions on various Slack channels and had only a limited number of examples/issues I could refer to on discussion forums.

But in a very short span, the Alexa team has come up with loads of learning content in the form of different blogs, many interesting video tutorials in episodic format on Twitch, regular workshops and dev days which are held around the world. Doesn’t matter what your experience with programming is, there are lots of tools for non-tech people, and for techies, you can make an Alexa skill in whichever language you are comfortable with. I have also curated a list of resources which has links to various tutorials, blogs, designing and prototyping platforms, and other valuable resources related to Alexa Skills Development – https://github.com/TheDreamSaver/awesome-alexa.

Building Alexa Skills is easy, like any other application development you just need to get the idea of the application you are building and start building it. You will face different issues and every challenge you face will teach you new concepts throughout the way.

I was so excited to showcase my abilities that I submitted not one but three skills for this hackathon. I was planning to submit a couple more but couldn’t complete them within the time frame.

My prize winning skill, The Ganga Quest, is a non-linear storytelling game, where the player’s choices can change the outcome of the story. In this enchanting decision tree-based game, the player gets the opportunity to begin his voyage down the Ganges in search of the missing book of the Panchatantra while having to make many decisions that could lead either to progress or to disappointment.

My other submission, Science Wizard, which also won the Alexa Popular Choice Award in this competition, is an attempt to boost science learning with hands-on activities, quizzes, debate prompts, research topics, and help with science formulas — all combined in one Alexa skill!

The Ganga Quest is an interactive decision tree-based storytelling game. The interactive game increases the thinking ability based on a cause-and-effect sequence. Good music across various steps of the adventure and different user responses leading to different paths in the game help create a compelling story through decision making. In future updates for this game, I will be looking to add more educational and instructive content from The Panchatantra to design other decision-based paths.

It was an amazing experience participating in this hackathon. HackerEarth was crystal clear about all the rules and guidelines associated with the competition. The HackerEarth staff was also very supportive and replied to all the queries and discussions promptly.

Just because there is no GUI involved, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to focus on user experience and design aspects. While developing Alexa Skills, remember that people are embracing voice-first user interfaces because they are natural, conversational, and user-centric, and because of that designing for voice is quite different from designing for screens.

There are several unique design patterns which apply to VUI. For instance, while designing for the screen you need to be consistent with your approach, but for voice interactions you need to show variability in your skill’s responses. Otherwise, the user experience will get affected negatively in the long run. Personalize the responses to surprise returning users. You also need to make sure you design the interaction before getting down to code, keeping in mind that your skill needs to be talking with them and not at them. The best way is to design the dialogue for a happy user experience before you start coding.

Also, remember to give voice and interactive content and your skill’s complex code and features equal importance. I have worked on about 20 skills till now, and the main thing I learned is that no matter how complex your skill is, the user won’t be returning to use your skill unless he/she finds it interactive and engaging.

Participating in this hackathon and winning it motivated me a lot to continue spending my time developing voice-first applications. I am looking forward to building more valuable and engaging Alexa Skills and being a part of this paradigm shift, which is the next major disruption in computing.

It was my first time participating in an online hackathon on HackerEarth, and it was an awesome and seamless experience. I’m looking forward to participating in more Amazon Alexa Hackathons and other hackathons at HackerEarth.

What’s next?

As part of Amazon’s strategic partnership with HackerEarth , Amazon will conduct one hackathon to boost student engagement on campuses and another hackathon for the spirited developer community in the country. Along with these focused and creative events, Amazon will conduct workshops and webinars to educate developers on how to build custom Alexa Skills. Going one step further, Amazon will host a microsite on HackerEarth to ensure these developers get updates on upcoming events, relevant learning resources, and more.

So stay tuned for more!

How was the overall experience with HackerEarth and the innovation platform?

Amazon found HackerEarth’s platform easy to use, making managing and evaluating submissions accurate and quick. HackerEarth’s 1.9 million-strong developer community provided a rich source of Alexa enthusiasts. The retail giant was impressed with the speed at which great ideas were converted into Alexa Skills. Amazon intends to take valuable insights gleaned from its first hackathon into the upcoming hackathons, especially templatizing the communication plans and ensuring developers are being “educated” right from the start. Amazon believes the latter is especially important so that participants know what it takes to submit a skill.

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