AlexaDev Tuesday: Pros And Cons Of Writing Alexa Skills For Kids

Amazon rolled out support for kid-specific skills at the end of August, and there are some definite pros and cons to writing Alexa skills for kids.

 

Tooth Fairy

 

In the developer console Privacy and Compliance tab, if you check off that radio button indicating your skill is geared to kids aged 13 and under, your skill will be classified as a Kids Skill.

Kids Skill

In checking off that radio button, you are also certifying your skill is in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (“COPPA”). COPPA essentially regulates data collection on kids, and aims to ensure parental consent is obtained before kids are allowed to consume digital media. You can read the full text of the rule here.

Amazon ensures all their Alexa skills for kids meet the parental consent requirement by adding a step to the skill enabling process for kids’ skills:

When a customer asks Alexa to enable a kid skill for the first time, Alexa will ask the customer to give permission in the Alexa app. The Alexa app will guide the customer through the process. To give permission, parents will need to verify their identity using a one-time SMS code sent to the mobile phone number in their Amazon account, or by entering the security code of the credit card in their Amazon account. Alexa will save the parental consent and access to kid skills will not require this verification again.

The other piece of COPPA, pertaining to data gathering, is very stringent. Follow the link provided above to read more about the requirements.

 

Reasons You May NOT Want To Develop Alexa Skills For Kids

1. If your skill gathers data of any kind from the user, even if only temporarily and only for purposes of running a skill session with stored cache tied to a user ID, your skill must be in compliance with the full COPPA rule—and it’s tough! You will have to include a written privacy policy with your skill, and drafting it is ideally something that should involve a lawyer. You will have to disclose that your skill gathers data in that policy, and it will be disclosed right on the skill’s description page. Even though your “data gathering” may consist only of temporarily storing skill session data under a UserID, under COPPA that can be judged to qualify as “Passive tracking of a child online” and must be disclosed as data gathering.

2. Certification is tougher. As you probably already guessed, Alexa skills for kids are vetted more carefully and tested more thoroughly than other skills. This isn’t to say that certification review on other skills is slipshod, just that Amazon takes parental concerns VERY seriously and does not want to risk alienating parents by allowing an inappropriate or poorly-designed skill to slip through. You MUST err on the side of caution in every piece of audio or speech the user may hear from your skill. Use of what may seem to you a relatively tame word, like “butt” or “snot”, may cause your skill to be viewed as too vulgar to pass certification.

3. Your own unit testing takes longer and is more demanding. If there’s anyone who can be counted on to say something to Alexa that you never intended or planned for, it’s a kid. Your skill must handle, and recover from, unpredictable and just plain wrong interactions easily.

4. Your skill will be competing against skills from established kids’ TV shows and brands. You’ll be up against SpongeBob SquarePants, Sesame Street and Nick Jr. characters, for a start. The bar is set pretty high since those skills were all written by professional, fulltime developers. In order to stand out, your skill will have to try harder. In a blog post about writing Alexa skills for kids, Amazon’s Jeff Blankenburg suggests:

Even if your skill follows a proven educational curriculum methodology, it has to be fun and engaging. Otherwise it’s just chocolate-covered broccoli. Think about how you want to surprise and delight them. Do you want to spark imagination? Do you want to make kids laugh? Will you use expressive speechcons or sound effects like silly horns and boings? How will Alexa cheer them on? Build in moments that kids tell their friends about on the playground.

Consider the age range you want to reach. Think about what ‘engaging’ means for the age group you want to serve. Will you optimize for the attention span of a five-year-old and keep them coming back for more? Will you design challenges to keep older kids engaged for extended periods of time? Do you want kids to advance to your next skill? For the little ones, don’t expect them to remember too many steps or comprehend complex instruction. The older kids, on the other hand, may love a good challenge.

5. Extra obstacles to onboarding. As described above, parents must take extra steps to enable Alexa skills for kids. It’s not as simple as the child seeing an ad or listing for your skill, or hearing about it from a friend, and immediately enabling it on their own.

 

Reasons You May WANT To Write Alexa Skills For Kids

1. It’s a wide open playing field. As of this writing, there are only 155 Alexa kids’ skills listed in Amazon’s US store. Discoverability will be less of a challenge for your kids’ skill than for any other type of skill.

2. Parents and caregivers are actively seeking skills to educate and amuse kids. The Magic Door is one of the most popular Alexa skills of all time, and it was written long before Amazon had a special categorization for kids’ skills. It’s a hit because kids love it, and parents and caregivers love that kids love it.

3. The increased targeting on kids’ skills allows for more focused development. Kids’ skills don’t have to appeal to all of the people all of the time. They only have to appeal to the specific group of kids you wish to use the skill.

4. Media exposure of kids’ skills is there for the taking. Even though there are fewer than 200 Alexa skills for kids so far, sites like Tom’s Guide and TurboFuture are writing up lists of the best kids’ skills. These are likely to be recurring features, just like ‘best toys of the season’ features.

 

Click here to read Amazon’s FAQ on writing skills for kids, which includes links to some case studies. When it comes to writing Alexa skills for kids, the demands are high but so too can be the rewards.

 

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