Building Voice-first Experiences with Amazon Alexa Skills

March 05, 2018

Christopher Spong

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How to create amazon alexa skills

Everything you to need know about Amazon’s Alexa Skills and how marketers can leverage Skills to drive voice-powered brand experiences with Echo device owners.


Late in 2014, Amazon unveiled a new device that would revolutionize the way consumers interact with the internet for entertainment, information, and commerce. Introduced as the Echo, Amazon’s tabletop speaker was the first to feature Alexa, a built-in audio assistant capable of playing music, ordering products, and answering user questions.

Although not the first virtual assistant to enter the marketplace – Apple’s Siri was introduced in 2011 – Alexa was the first assistant to exist independent from a smartphone. On its release, the Echo speaker was limited to Amazon Prime members. It was then made widely available in the summer of 2015.

Three years later, Amazon’s Echo has stimulated an entire category of smart devices. The Google Home and Apple’s HomePod have joined the Echo in exponentially increasing the marketplace for smart speakers. According to a report by NPR and Edison Research, smart audio devices can now be found in 16% of homes in the US.


Amazon Alexa

What sets Alexa apart from other digital personal assistants are Skills. Simply put, a Skill is an application built for an Alexa-enabled device that is controlled through voice commands and engages with users via audio responses and instructions.


Skills mimic the tasks that users normally complete via a mobile application or website, including selecting and playing music, controlling smart home devices, and ordering products. Skills, however, are built to be used hands-free and by voice, enabling Amazon Echo owners to use their device when it is out-of-reach.

A user interacts with a Skill by speaking the Wake Word, “Alexa,” and using the Skill’s invocation to prompt a response from the device. For example, if a user wants to listen to a radio station via their Echo device, they simply state, “Alexa, play [radio station] on iHeartRadio.” Assuming the station is available on iHeartRadio, a native Alexa Skill, the device would then stream the station.


Skills can follow several different protocols, including pulling information from a specified source, connecting to and controlling another internet-enabled device, playing video content via a connected TV, or building lists for users to reference later.

Custom Skills enable users to complete even more complex tasks or retrieve specific information curated by the Skill’s creator. Tasks such as ordering food for delivery, hailing a car from an app-based ride service (like Uber), reading step-by-step recipe instructions, or playing a voice game are popular protocols being used by brands.


Skills are created using the Alexa Skills Kit, which is provided by Amazon to enable developers to create voice-based experiences. Skills are hosted in the cloud and are created either by coding an Amazon Web Service (AWS) Lambda function or by writing a secure web service function. A “custom interaction model” is created to define the requests that the Skill can engage with and the responses that the Skill can provide.

Once created, Skills can be tested using an Alexa-enabled device or by using Amazon’s Service Simulator. Skills that incorporate touch interactions or display information on Echo Show devices require testing on that device.


For publishers, music services, and smart-home technology companies, Amazon Alexa Skills are a must for increasing engagement with Echo device owners. Brand managers and marketers outside of these verticals should also consider creating a branded Skill to engage Echo owners. As consumer behaviors shift and adapt to voice-first technology, so too must the way businesses enable consumers to engage and interact with their products.

Important to consider before investing in the development of a Skill, however, is the benefit it will provide users and how it will impact business goals. Like the mobile app development rush that began with the popularity of the smartphone, research into the wants and needs of consumers is essential before developing a Skill. Creating a Skill that answers common service questions, for instance, can help to improve customer relations response time by reducing the volume of commonly asked questions that are submitted via other channels.

It is also important to note that the Alexa Skills Kit provides creators with a dashboard to view usage metrics once a Skill has been deployed. Within the dashboard, Amazon provides data on the unique number of users and utterances that trigger a Skill. Marketers that measure Skill usage would then be able incorporate the data in brand engagement and awareness reporting.

Finally, marketers should prepare for an evolution of Skills and how Amazon leverages them. Paid Skills or in-Skill advertising could turn the voice applications into major revenue streams. As with the mobile application industry, which is predicted to grow to $6.3 trillion in 2021, Skills are likely to stimulate a wave of digital engagement growth for brands and developers. Both Google and Apple have begun promoting their own versions of Skills, called Actions on Google and SiriKit Experiences, to capitalize on changing user behavior.

Image Source: Amazon Echo Dot / Flickr, Amazon Alexa 

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