Voice Activation

Alexa And Voice Commerce: Thinking Outside The Cylinder

Alexa Voice Challenge Echo

The 2018 Amazon Alexa Voice Challenge is a different competition than in years past — naturally, since the voice-activated assistant herself has evolved and matured, and so has the voice-activated landscape.

Three years ago, developers had to think of skills in terms of a cylindrical speaker that would be placed somewhere in the consumer’s home, most likely the kitchen. But for Amazon, the Echo speaker was just a starting point. Alexa was never meant to live in a plastic tower.

She was meant to transcend devices — and today, she’s much closer to that goal, thanks to a proliferation of endpoints that leverage her artificial intelligence (AI) on devices by Amazon and other developers who implement the Alexa Voice Service (AVS).

Today’s Alexa is a different AI operating in a different environment. Therefore, developers competing in the Voice Challenge must think outside the cylinder if they hope to make a splash.

In a recent interview with Karen Webster, Kris Zanuldin, head of connected commerce at Amazon, said voice is a new frontier, and developers must see themselves as pioneers.

Furthermore, they’re not just creating a commerce experience with voice, he said. They are responsible for closing the loop between online and offline experiences. That is no small task, which is why Zanuldin said he and Amazon have put so much thought into building a foundation upon which creative minds can easily build.

Here are Zanuldin’s top tips and insights for building on that foundation in the Alexa Voice Challenge.

Match Goals With Amazon

Amazon has always been about convenience. From day one, Zanuldin said the objective with Alexa was to “redefine everyday convenience” with the ultimate goal of anytime engagement. That’s why contextual awareness has been a major focus for the minds behind Amazon’s iconic AI.

Zanuldin said the key is that Alexa must not be tied to a singular device like the Echo, because that silos how customers can interact. Anytime engagement is a push approach. One day, whenever and wherever you are, Alexa will be able to help you get what you’re looking for, and the current proliferation of endpoints will help facilitate that as Alexa moves into phones, cars and beyond.

Tether Alexa to a single device and the user, too, becomes tethered, Zanuldin said. Plus, the technology can grow stale or even dumber over time. He explained that while many technologies depreciate over time, Alexa does the opposite, since she lives in the cloud and has lots of developers constantly building new skills to make her smarter.

Think Multi-Modal

Voice is convenient, but combined with other modes of interaction, Zanuldin said it gains much more power. When Alexa moves out of the speaker and into other areas of consumers’ lives, they begin to see her not as the voice in the Echo but as the intelligent friend who lives anywhere and everywhere.

There are some use cases in which pure voice represents the ultimate convenience, Zanuldin conceded, but there are others when visuals would be helpful, or physical interaction may be required.

Think of the Echo Show and how it may present further details on items in a newsfeed, a wearable that may require input to start tracking physical activity or Panasonic’s announcement at CES that Alexa could become available across a wider variety of cars — and not just the previously announced BMW, Hyundai and Ford — for on-the-go mobile ordering.

Work Backwards From Customers

There’s a definite appetite for efficiency, and nothing fuels efficiency like ordering dinner or the groceries on the drive home, then stopping to pick them up.

The problem is that consumers must use mobile devices to do that — not exactly a safe choice while one is operating a vehicle. They told PYMNTS they would use mobile ordering capabilities much more frequently if they were integrated directly into cars rather than having to rely on a device.

Zanuldin said that’s just one example of how skills could be built backward from customers. Consumers want experiences to make their lives more convenient and delightful, so Amazon builds the foundation — in this case, by enabling Alexa in cars. The exciting part will be seeing how developers choose to leverage that new endpoint.

Wearables represent another endpoint — and one that needs some fresh innovation, he added. The category has grown stale because developers have been too focused on the device itself rather than the commercial experience it brings to the table. This category represents a major untapped opportunity.

Developers would also do well to consider how voice could benefit not just consumers, but businesses. Many merchants and businesses are asking how they can put voice to work for them and will be eager to embrace a quality product if a developer puts one forward.

Resources Are There To Be Used

According to Zanuldin, technical know-how is not a requirement for building a digital business. Amazon wants to make Alexa skill development equally accessible so that creative minds don’t have to be core developers to participate in challenges like this one.

To that end, he said the Alexa Skills Kit will be the most important tool across the board for this year’s challenge participants because it enables them to tap into software development kits (SDKs) and application programming interfaces (APIs) to power the experiences they’re building. This saves developers from having to worry about things like declines and workflows, Zanuldin said.

Any teams working on hardware projects are free to leverage the Alexa Voice Service as a means of extending Alexa into third-party hardware devices. Why reinvent the wheel when Amazon is giving out wheels for free?

Create, Don’t Recreate

When mobile devices hit the scene, early developers made the mistake of trying to shrink or translate the web experience for a smaller device. But Zanuldin notes that mobile didn’t really begin to flourish until it was accepted as its own channel rather than a mini-web.

Developers should not just think about how Alexa could replace processes that are today completed through text or apps, he suggests. Rather, they should think about how Alexa and voice can deliver a more convenient experience (like ordering ahead in the car) or leverage new endpoints to introduce an experience that is wholly original and new, which may have previously been impossible.

In other words, start from the ground up and think about connecting endpoints rather than translating an experience that already exists, Zanuldin said.

Embrace Constraints

Because voice is its own thing and not simply an extension of mobile, it has its own inherent strengths and opportunities, but also its own limitations. Best practices in other channels don’t always translate.

For instance, a restaurant that wants to introduce voice ordering may instinctually feel that including the entire menu would be the most convenient way to go – after all, consumers love choices. But with voice, the customer may just want to re-order their favorite meals or order from the top-10 list.

According to Zanuldin, constraining onself isn’t a bad thing. After all, curating creates a better user experience.

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