Alexa Blueprints – Customize your smartspeaker

Amazon newly launched Alexa Blueprints tackle a user experience problem – what to do with lack of things to do – and are a good strategic play around strategic services.

The problem Alexa Blueprints tackles

The common complaint from smart speaker owners is that there is nothing to do with the product. Sure I can increase or decrease the volume on Spotify or change channels on TV. But so what? What more can I do? And while there are over 40,000 skills on the Alexa store, finding useful skills is hard.

Alexa Blueprints is one way to tackle this problem – you can create your own interactions without knowing how to code. And while Alexa Blueprints provides some use cases, knowing human ingenuity, we are likely to see it used for use cases beyond the ones imagined by Amazon – how about using the Pet Alexa Blueprint to remind your babysitter or eldercare worker about special precautions?

Who is Alexa Blueprints for?

Is Alexa Blueprints for everyone? Not really. While Blueprints give you greater control and flexibility, it does feel technical and the average user will still feel overwhelmed when they initially open the interface. A logical future expansion is to make it truly #voicefirst – that is – the user selects, sets and test all elements through the smart speaker.

No, Alexa Blueprints is for the gadget lovers and geeks who want to share their new best friend with others. It expands the scope of engagement these evangelists can offer. It forms as a stepping stone to introduce the Alexa to others.

Alexa Blueprints and strategic fit

In any case, while equivalent to the set of services offered through Google Action, Blueprints does expand Amazon’s service and customization offering. Google your turn?


#Voicefirst Ecosystem and Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica’s actions are an issue for the #voicefirst ecosystem. An issue on which taking a clear stance today will help improve adoption and security tomorrow.

Voice is far more engaging and, therefore, intrusive than social media in the influence it can exert. The voicefirst ecosystem needs digital assistants to be travel with us. They need not just fulfill our needs, but to anticipate them. This mean the use of #AIs on data about You. The #voicefirst ecosystem is becoming the most interconnected and data reliant system available to the everyday consumer. This is both the boon and the bane of #voicefirst – powerful information, and in the wrong hands a great tool of destruction.

The Cambridge Analytica fiasco reveals some truths of the world we live. Some truths that need to be confronted head on by #voicefirst practitioners.

Corporations care most about profit

Powerholders such as corporations will use all available means to hold onto power and increase their influence. That Facebook would play party or be complicit is to be expected. There will be others who follow suit. Customer focus and stickiness are only important as long as they are sub-servant to the profit motive – it is harder to acquire new customer than to keep the old ones. Expect this as the norm from corporations.

Solutions:  Bake consumer protection into #voicefirst DNA

No one says your startup cannot or should not legally bake consumer protection into it’s DNA and processes. One such form – B-corps, are available that make all stakeholders the focus before shareholder profit.

Politicians care about winning

While, Obama mining Facebook data to influence elections in 2012 was not illegal at the time, even he, who looks, acts and behaves as the finest of gentlemen, is not below using any means to win, even it means breaching his own voters trust. This is not a one-off case – expect similar behavior by your favorite political party – especially when politics is run by slogans, rhetoric, gerrymandering, and two minutes snippets rather than issues.

Solutions: Use #voicefirst to promote trusted sources

Don’t expect real news from social media (or for that matter, MSM). Find trusted sources online – some like Michael Moore and Jimmy Dore have taken on the system by creating programs that highlight real issues using the same platforms that politicians are using to influence. Some other sources I follow include, TheRealNews and The Intercept. Please share in the comments below any other news show that YOU trust.

Finally, as a #voicefirst technologist and entrepreneur, I see the opportunity to build #voicefirst feedback mechanism that allow users to pose questions around dubious issues, call out fake news and have conversations with each other – kind of like the comment section – but using voice.

Corporations have a poor history of safeguarding user data – this is built into the system

Corporations have a poor history of safeguarding user data – software development is iterative in nature, and it is impossible and impractical to launch “fully” secure software solutions. Infact, it is impossible to create a fully secure system exists. The nature of #voicefirst means that unscrupulous elements will always try to hack, meddle and break into the system.

Solutions: Layer your #voicefirst security

Expect data breaches and build layers of security. This applies to #voicefirst systems in more ways than one. Security and privacy include the ability to identify users in a room and only divulge targeted information. It includes identifying duress by understanding tone and stress. It also includes defining liability when events do happen.

Google and Amazon are not the only #voicefirst players

Mycroft AI is not the only opensource #Voicefirst system, but definitely the one looking ready for consumer sue. While most of the opensource systems are limited in functionality they hint at what consumer really want – a system as polished and refined as what Amazon and Google are trying to build, but with MY data secured and locked in a private cloud at my own premises. Are we likely to see this soon? No – the computational engines aren’t there yet and opensource is too clunky for the average user. But if it was available and worked, would I pay extra for this. Yes!

I believe the #voicefirst ecosystem is going to take over the world. These critical questions can be tackled now, with narratives having heroes and champions, or can be left to tomorrow, with narratives having villains and misguided souls (i.e. the Zuckerbergs of #voicefirst). I want to believe in heroes.



Designing better responses for searches by voice

Google has published a detailed post on what snippets are and why they are important to those searching by voice.

As part of the the blog post, Google shared:

“We display featured snippets in search when we believe this format will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking, both from the description and when they click on the link to read the page itself. It’s especially helpful for those on mobile or searching by voice.”

Snippet responses for searching by voice: the business angle

From a business perspective, short of building your own voice skills, this is also an opportunity to explore options and experiment with voice. In addition, snippets create a way to standout from the “ten blue links” for mobile and web searches. Finally, snippets and click data offer a greater insight into the mind of the customer as he lands on the page.

The caveat? The importance of designing answer that are useful, provide a positive experience and guide your potential customer to the next steps in the process.

A framework for rating snippets and voice responses

And that is where we take a leaf out of Google’s UX playbook. The guidelines for evaluating speech that Google has posted provides a great framework for approaching and tackling voice responses and snippets. First and foremost I love the emphasis on meeting customer needs.

In addition, the document hints at what Google considers important in building a great voice experience – and therefore items that you should consider when user testing responses as part of your voice solutions:

  1. Ability to meet user needs
  2. Length of response
  3. Formulation
  4. Elocution

Finally, the wireframe at the end of the document shows a possible way to conduct internal testing and elicit structured, actionable feedback.

If you found this useful, you like the piece on driving retention for your voice app or skills.

Factors affecting Voice User Experience: Voice Recognition

Google announced that the Google Assistant can match you to your Netflix profile thanks to voice recognition.

There are takeaways about Google and it’s strategy from the announcement.

Voice Wars: Google vs Amazon

For starters, there have been a string of pressers about some product or services integration with Google Assistant. While this is not a complete surprise, it is interesting to note the pattern – Google is actively targeting large service oriented corporations. Compare this with Amazon’s strategy of creating seamless access to products through efficient e-commerce and distribution infrastructure.

Factors in Voice User Experience Design:Voice Recognition

My bet? Experience will be the most important factor. For now, Amazon is winning hands down as it has had the advantage of having critical elements of the flow in-house. While Amazon can leverage it distribution system to cover for poor fulfillment by third parties, Google will face a challenge creating consistent end-to-end delivery of service and related experiences.

Secondly, it indicates incremental steps towards a defining feature for some important industries – voice recognition. Voice recognition is going to be essential in factor/feature in the following industries:

  • Finance, Insurance and Banking – accurate voice recognition is key to building safe, secure and private financial voice assistants
  • Automotive – as with finance, insurance and banking, voice recognition will be key in safeguarding assets as well as providing invoking skills for the desired party
  • Healthcare – voice recognition will play a critical part in rolling out services to retiring baby boomers
  • Productivity – open floor offices are the rage these days, but are not ideal for personal voice assistants. Either isolation needs to be provided or voice recognition needs to be spot on

Follow us on twitter at @voicestrategist and keep track on insights on voice assistants, the digital ecosystem and conversational interfaces.

Amazon mulling ads on Alexa?

According to CNBC, Amazon is thinking of pushing ads on Alexa

The move is not unexpected – Google Home has been running ads through it’s services for a while. Amazon has for now denied it will run ads – although some content providers can include ads in their content according to strict guidelines.
But if true, the more interesting question is where will the ads be run, and how much control will each stakeholder have?

How do Ads on Alexa benefit brands?

With the amount of data and context available, ads should be hyper targeted and ad value – or atleast that is the promise. But, the evolution of web and mobile has shown us this is easier said than done. Things can go wrong. Who is responsible when ads are run for the wrong audience (e.g. running an ad aimed at an older audience when children are present in a room)? Or if the ad is run next to an news item that the brand does not want to be associated with? These concerns hold true, and the need to ensure and safeguard brands is likely to drive more and more sophisticated targeting mechanism.

How do Ads on Alexa benefit app developers and content creators?

With Amazon needing to find monetization opportunities for developers, ads may be part of the answer. This is especially relevant for developers and content creators able to build large, content oriented audiences, networks and communities.

The move is likely to have broader implications. This will also be a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs to build the next generation of ad based start-ups.

How do Ads on Alexa benefit the consumer?

The news for consumer is mixed. The opportunity to easily monetize through ads may lead new and interesting apps and business models. But, conversational interfaces and voice apps are all about the experience and ads can spoil them. It will be interesting to see how much control Amazon keeps on guidelines and formats for ad units.

The move, if true, is likely to assuage some fears for brands and retailers – but this does not mean that the underlying causes behind the fears have dissipated. On the other hand, it will be interesting to watch how sophisticated Amazon’s “Ad network” is. For example, is it going to target based on phrases and keywords, likes and interests, or, experiences, personas, and lifestyles?


How to drive retention and remind users about your voice skills

We saw it with dot com bust and the emergence of mobile apps, and now we are seeing it with voice apps – there are thousands of voice apps, but few are regularly used and have good retention rate. Currently retention rate is estimated between 3% and 4%.

How to improve retention rate for voice skills and apps?

Need a go-to-market strategy? Or have you launched but people don’t use your skill. Here are five tips to improve retention for your apps:

1. Select the right problem to solve and experience to deliver

Before anything else, selecting the right problem to solve and the right tone to solve it in can make or break your app. Spend time figuring out who your customer are, how your app ads value to their life and what kind of experience they are looking for in the interaction. The tone and design need to reflect your offering – having a hip, teenage sounding voice for your banking app may be cool, but doesn’t inspire confidence.

2. Skill ranking in Amazon Alexa

If your app truely delivers value for customer, you should aim for and remind customers (at the right time – we don’t want to spam users with popups and reminders) to set your skill as a primary skill. If your users love your skill, they are likely to follow suit.

3. Multi-channel approach

Guiding people to use your voice skill or app, and keep it top of their mind isn’t just about having the app available. It will require having a strong go-to-market strategy. The low hanging fruit? Your existing users on other channels. Design campaigns to onboard them and get their feedback.

4. Notification for installed skills

Amazon has enabled notifications and Google Home also has notifications available – the notifications can be directed to the smart speaker or your phone. Notifications are a great way to remind users of updates and re-engage them. Keep in mind what users would consider annoying or spam. We want to increase engagement, not drive users away.

5. Create habit use cases

Finally, creating habit use cases and prioritizing them in development also will lead to higher interaction and involvement levels. Here is another post that provides an interesting perspective on habit formation:

This post is based around a question asked in VoiceTO Meetup. For credit where it’s due – thanks Guy, Polina, and Tim – I took their pointers and expanded on it

Also check out our other posts on voice design and ux and voice product strategy

Google vs Amazon: Youtube will not be available on Amazon Devices

The Ongoing feud between Amazon and Google intensified yesterday, with Google announcing that Youtube will not be available on Amazon devices.

The move can be seen as part of the growing threat competitors face from Amazon across all fronts – retail, devices, voice, media – and Amazon’s ability to integrate and package it with customers in mind.

You can read more about the details about the feud here 

Youtube and respecting your customers

I want to cover a different aspect – how do users feel?

I don’t think they are happy – here are some choice comments:

“Google seems to love using YouTube as a weapon to annihilate competition”

“these companies should suck it up, play nice, and win the tech war by offering the best products, not trying to handicap their competition.”

“And yes it is not symmetrical. For literally every product sold on Amazon there are at least some but most often many really viable alternative places to go get it. No consumer is teuly harmed by any product not being sold on Amazon. There are plenty of places to get Nest. There are not truly viable alternatives to get YouTube content. While Facebook video and Vimeo do exist they are not in any way comparable to YouTube in the way Walmart is to Amazon. Both companies are doing some shady stuff but there’s no doubt it’s Goolgle that is actively harming users. And yes they’ve done it before. They are and have been every bit as evil as they swore not to be in their mission statement”

Personally, I choose a Fire TV Stick device over a Google ChromeCast because the latter failed to connect to my wifi – a running issues with the ChromeCast for over 3 years. Keeping in mind Adpocalypse and the more recent Adpocalypse 2.0, that helped alienate content creaters, I wonder if alienating users is the best next step?

What can you do? Youtube Alternatives

Youtube’s announcement had me looking at alternatives, and in the process I discovered some neat apps:

Tubi - Free Movies & TV

TubiTV – has an interesting mix of old school hits, stoner shows and b-grade. Their anime collection isn’t bad and their fare is different than what Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime have to offer


Twitch – If you love watching video game playthroughs, switching over to Twitch from Youtube should fill all your cravings

Spotify Music – pour Fire TV

Spotify – If you love music, get Spotify. Spotify’s playlists are a great way to discover new music


Vimeo – Get classy, high quality content created by filmmakers. The site caters more for long form content

Cover art

Coub – Coub is the opposite of Vimeo mixed with reddit like voting system – short funny clips on the loop

Daily Tube for DailyMotion - FREE

Daily Motion – Daily Motion is pretty much the European version of Youtube. While not as popular or having as much content, it still a great platform

What’s next: Bypassing Youtube’s block on Fire TV

For those who still want to use Youtube on the Fire TV,  we will be following any development around ports and posting those. There are ways to install Kodi on Fire TV Stick and I expect similar exploits for Youtube.

PullString Converse: VoiceFirst Prototyping Design and Development Tool


For those who don’t develop, a new set of voice prototyping, design and deployment tools for voice apps are available. Last week PullString launched PullString Converse and we got a chance to talk to Michael Fitzpatrick, the President and Chief Operating Officer for PullString.

Michael Fitzpatrick

Michael:  “the product is designed for creative professionals, digital marketers, and innovation teams without requiring any coding or technical knowledge”

VoiceStrategist: How did you step into the field of voice? Where do you see it heading?

Michael: PullString began its life as a technology company focused on building conversational toys for the children’s market back in 2011. The company has since evolved to provide software to empower creative professionals, digital marketers, and innovation teams to build engaging conversational experiences for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and IoT devices.

Over the years, we learned by building experiences of our own, as well as supporting other brands like Mattel, Activision, and Nickelodeon who have leveraged our software platform. The emergence of voice-enabled devices and platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are rapidly pushing the field forward and into consumer households creating the opportunity for brands to have highly engaging 1-1 personalized conversations with their consumers at scale.

VoiceStrategist: What is PullString Conversion Cloud and Pullstring Converse? What is the difference?

Michael: PullString Converse is a software platform to design, prototype, and publish voice apps for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and IoT devices. It is powered by our Conversation Cloud, which provides everything needed to deploy and support your voice apps once published to Amazon, Google, etc.

VoiceStrategist: PullString Converse is targeted towards “Brands”? Do you see the brands themselves using PullString or the agency(ies)?

Michael: We have experience with both brands directly creating and managing their voice apps, as well as Agencies building voice apps for their clients. PullString Converse was designed for team collaboration on voice apps, and this allows brands to build interactive voice apps with various team members internally ( creatives, digital marketers, and even legal for compliance purposes ), as well as cross-firewall with agencies. Likewise, agencies can leverage their resources and collaboratively design voice experiences with their clients.

VoiceStrategist: How would any collaboration work?

Michael: PullString supports team collaboration by enabling multiple users to engage on a given voice project with appropriate roles and permissions. Voice apps can be easily shared with others in the organization to preview and provide feedback. All of this has been designed to ensure the most engaging conversational experiences are being built with PullString.

VoiceStrategist: The case for informational voice app for Brands is straightforward – how well is Pullstring Converse situated to build transactional systems?

Michael: While there are a variety of informational voice apps available today, we think we’re only now just beginning to see some interesting examples of what’s possible through a combination of custom audio, interaction models, and personalization. Personalization, in particular, is something that can be dramatically enhanced through information available in transactional systems, and is a core part of our roadmap going forward.

VoiceStrategist: What are your thoughts about brands and retailers feeling voice apps are trouble for them? How can PullString Converse help them?

Michael: PullString Converse will allow brands to build engaging, interactive conversational experiences for their consumers. These voice apps have the potential to go much further than product ordering by embracing their brand persona, delivering complementary information and experiences to their product(s), and personalizing the experience for the consumer, at scale.

VoiceStrategist: So I am an agency and I have customers who might be interested. What would a partnership with PullString look like? Do you have easily accessible sales material or demos for customers?

Michael: We’d love to support you! We’ve designed PullString Converse to be a tool you can rapidly build voice apps with, and believe it will become a competitive differentiator for agencies pitching their clients on innovative marketing and customer experiences.

We will be launching a formal program in a few weeks, but in the meantime, please feel free to get in touch through our website and we’ll follow-up to get you started with all the right supporting material and product access.

VoiceStrategist: What kind of technical guidance is required to setup PullString Converse?

Michael: We designed PullString Converse to allow organizations to write conversation, not code. This means the product is designed for creative professionals, digital marketers, and innovation teams without requiring any coding or technical knowledge.

We will be following up on Friday with the second part of the interview, where we discuss the broader voicefirst ecosystem.

Why Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Matter in voicefirst ecosystems

Any discussion about voice and digital ecosystems is incomplete without discussing augmented reality, virtual reality and holograms. Voice is a great input and output mechanism on its own, but really comes into its own with synergies with other input and output devices and mechanisms.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Are Here: IMAX VR

Here is an example of voice and vr working together – last week I tried out some games at the ScotiaBank Theatre IMAX:

Image the same devices, in an office setting, enabled by voice. What you get is (but for business):

It does also highlight, another interesting question – what should be routed where? When should visuals be routed to mobile screen or TVs or AR sets. What should happen when no visual device is available?

Voice without Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality: Screen Size Zero

While the problem may seem new, it is not – developers and designers already manage for devices and screen resolutions/sizes. There is just a new screen size – size 0.