Amazon is making a bunch of changes to the Alexa user experience, all with the same idea in mind: to make the virtual assistant easier to use. Most notable is a change in the way Alexa handles Routines, which developers can now create and recommend to users instead of forcing you to manually create your own automations. Alexa is also starting to coexist with assistants from other manufacturers, and Amazon is working to ensure that the most important commands – like “Stop!” – works no matter what wake word you use.
Amazon made the announcements during its Alexa Live developer event, where the company announced a slew of other new Alexa features primarily aimed at developers. They can add purchases to skills, more easily support Matter and other smart home systems, connect to an easier setup flow, and better understand their environment.
But Amazon knows that none of Alexa’s flashy new features mean much if you can’t find them or figure out how to use them. And rather than creating new UIs or clever voice menus, the Alexa team simply focuses on having the system do the work for you. “We want to make automation and proactivity accessible to everyone who interacts with Alexa and Alexa-connected devices because it’s so enjoyable,” says Aaron Rubenson, vice president of the Alexa team.
The change in routines is the most obvious example among the new announcements. Users can still set up their own Routines – “when I say I’m in, make sure the stove goes out and turn off all the lights” that sort of thing – but now developers can embed Routines into their skills and offer them to users based on their activity. “So as an example,” says Robinson, “Jaguar Land Rover is using the Alexa Routines kit to create a routine they call ‘Good Night’, which will ensure the car is locked, remind customers of the level charge or fuel level and then enable Guardian Mode as well This is the kind of thing a lot of people might enjoy but few will do the work to create on their own but now they’ll just have to activate it.
Rubenson says that the people who use Routines are some of the stickiest, most consistent Alexa users out there and he wants those people to continue to have the buttons they need to create their weirdest and weirdest automations. crazier. “But we also recognize that not everyone will take this step,” he says. As Alexa continues to struggle to keep users engaged, adding some proactivity to Routines could make them more useful for more people.
Voice assistants have always presented a tricky UI problem because they don’t offer a series of buttons or icons and are just a blank slate you can talk to or shout at. Over time, the Alexa team has reduced that friction by essentially trying to make it impossible to say the wrong thing. That’s part of the thinking behind its multi-assistant support, which lets developers place their own virtual assistant next to Alexa inside the device. (Amazon’s new partner is Skullcandy, so you can talk to your headphones by saying “Alexa” or “Hey Skullcandy.”)
Along the same lines, Amazon is also working on a feature called Universal Commands that lets a device running Alexa do certain critical things, regardless of what wake word you used. For example: you can say “Hey Skullcandy, set a timer for 10 minutes”, and Skullcandy’s assistant can’t do it, but Alexa can, so Alexa can manage it automatically. Rubenson named timers and call rejection as equally important things that any Alexa-enabled device should be able to handle even if you haven’t interacted with Alexa. This feature, Robinson says, will be rolling out over the next year.
Developers will need to implement and use these features for them to be well understood. Amazon is working to incentivize them: it changes its revenue-sharing agreement so that developers keep 80% of their revenue instead of 70% and launches the Skill Developer Accelerator program, which Rubsenson says “will reward developers for taking the steps we know lead to creating a high-quality, engaging skill based on all the story we have.What’s the code for: Amazon pays developers to upgrade their skills.
If Amazon can make this all work, however, it will have taken a step towards solving one of the big problems with voice assistants: it’s hard to figure out what they can do, so most of users default to music, lights, and timers, meaning Developers have no reason to invest in the platform, meaning users don’t have to do anything. By simultaneously making the platform more powerful and having the platform do more work on behalf of users, Amazon can turn that wheel in the other direction. And you don’t even have to help.
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