Alexa Skills: The Misplaced Manual

Now that we’ve all had some time to play around with Alexa skills, I’m seeing certain questions come up again and again in user discussion boards. It’s not surprising, since skills were released with little more than the developers’ brief descriptions and three sample phrases to try on each one.

Hopefully, today’s post will clear up some confusion and make skills much easier and more enjoyable to use.


1. Universal Quit
Some users of the Tidepooler skill found themselves effectively ‘trapped’ in the skill, having to wait out a response they’d triggered accidentally before the skill would shut down.

Image from Scripps Institution of Oceanography – click to view enlarged version


The universal “quit” command, which works in every skill and Echo function I’ve tested, is “[wake word], exit.”


2. One-Shot Invocation
Amazon requires developers, if at all possible for the skill, to include multiple one-shot invocation options for the user—commands that will launch the skill AND have it do its thing with a single command. In a skill like Cat Facts there’s no need for this, because as soon as you say, “[wake word], open Cat Facts,” Alexa immediately fetches and reads a cat fact.

But for skills like my own Crystal Ball, the user can choose to launch the skill, listen to the welcome message and respond with the appropriate command, or launch the skill and issue the command all at once. Here are just a few examples of how this can be done in Crystal Ball:

[wake word], ask Crystal Ball for my fortune.

[wake word], launch Crystal Ball and tell it I’m ready.

[wake word], ask Crystal Ball if I’ll win the lottery.

There are many, MANY more. You can pretty much insert any query you want after “ask Crystal Ball if,” because the key words Alexa’s “listening” for there are “ask,” “if” and the name of the skill.

Amazon’s engineers assume users will tire of having to sit through the brief welcome message after the first few uses of a given skill. In evaluating skills submitted by independent developers, their focus is always on eliminating user annoyance and delays to the extent possible.

Amazon’s Alexa engineers seem to particularly favor one-shot invocations that begin with “ask” or “tell”, so try a few variations of these on the skills you’ve enabled (where they make sense).


3. Undocumented Ways to Interact With A Skill
There are MANY more things you can say when using a skill than just the three sample phrases provided in the skill’s description. They may not be sharing this with Echo owners but Amazon requires us developers to include ALL of the most likely things a user might say while using one of our skills, so the Alexa Voice Service can respond appropriately.

For example, my Bingo skill Utterances file has 195 entries: 195 different things the user might say while using my skill, that the skill should be prepared to respond to. Things like:

Read the help file.

Quit the game.

Say the next number.

That’s a bingo!

I didn’t realize most Echo owners are completely unaware of this until one of them reported having trouble getting my Bingo skill launched because his family’s heavy Boston accent turned the word “start” into “staht” and Alexa didn’t understand them. I helped him out by listing Bingo’s one-shot invocations that don’t require use of the word “start,” like:

[wake word] open Bingo and call the first number.

[wake word] open Bingo and tell it I’m ready.

[wake word] launch Bingo and go.


4. Programmed/Timed Delays Are Not Currently Possible
MANY users are asking for changes to skills that involve inserting pre-programmed timers or delays.

For example, one user wrote me to say that in my Bingo skill it should be possible for the user to issue a command that will make Alexa go into a kind of standby/pause mode until the user prompts for the next number, while a different user said it shouldn’t be necessary to prompt for the next number at all and Alexa should just keep calling them automatically, with a set pause between each number.

Many Echo owners have asked for skills that would allow them to enter a reminder with a set alarm time, when Alexa would automatically wake up and read the reminder. Others have asked for similar skills that would let the user set a timer that would launch a skill or function instead of sounding an alarm when time’s up.

None of these things are currently possible, at least not in skills created by independent developers, because the Alexa Skills Kit that’s available to independent developers does not allow for programming pauses or delays into skills. Just today I received feedback from Amazon’s Alexa team saying they are aware of this need and are looking into it, but have no estimated date of implementation.



5. Default Responses Are Not Currently Possible
Another popular item on the Echo owner wish list is the ability for a skill to gracefully respond to literally ANYTHING the user says by providing a default response for any user speech that’s not already included in the skill’s Utterances file.

This is also not currently possible, because the Alexa Skills Kit that’s available to independent developers does not allow for programming any kind of blanket, default, catch-all response into skills. All we developers can do is try ensure our Utterances file includes all the things people are most likely to say while using our skills. But we can’t possibly cover every base, because it’s impossible to predict every possible thing a person might say.

At one point during the testing and certification process for one of my skills, Amazon’s engineers brought up the fact that the user might speak nonsense when using my skill, saying something like, “Chicken fur horsefeathers.” And I agreed, that was certainly possible. In the end, everyone had to accept that this was simply part of the nature of this new type of speech-controlled artificial intelligence.


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