Alexa, What's a Skill?

Levi Sawyers

Levi Sawyers

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Welcome to the 101 series for anything voice! Over the span of the next several months, team members at Jargon will be covering a variety of topics related to the voice ecosystem. If you’re looking to get up to speed on the conversation or would like to refer someone to better understand the industry, use the links below the post to either subscribe or share.

Here’s the story: somehow you or someone you know got connected to a voice assistant this holiday season – what’s next? In the inaugural post for the 101 series, we’ll be taking on the commonly asked question: What are “skills”, “actions”, and “capsules”? The short answer is that they all refer to the same concept. But first, a bit of context:

Let’s start by clarifying something – most people associate voice functionality with smart speakers (think Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home). However, voice assistants are also available in smartphones and increasingly, across other smart devices (think about talking to your fridge or microwave!).

You likely got your first smartphone a decade ago and like most people, you were eager to test out the base device functionality – playing with the touchscreen, connecting your email, surfing the web, taking pictures on the camera, the list goes on. But shortly thereafter, you discovered the app store, with an explosive selection of early apps: from a flashlight app, to a bank app, to Angry Birds.

Today, we’re seeing a replay of the same story, but at a much-accelerated pace. Consumers are rapidly and eagerly adopting voice assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri. After trying out the basic functionality, such as asking for the weather and the schedule of the upcoming Seahawks game, curiosity leads us to the app stores of voice assistants where the voice apps – “skills” and “actions” – exist.

A “skill” or “action” is the term for an app or capability developed by a first or third-party vendor that provides additional functionality to devices using Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant voice services.

In other words with a skill or action, a consumer is able to engage with their favorite brands using voice. Just like mobile apps offer a variety of experiences, voice apps also fall in multiple categories. For example, they might be informational (listening to news, answering questions about schedules or availability), entertaining (playing a trivia game or listening to music or soundscapes), or transactional (purchasing or checking in on an order). In smart homes, skills also allow users to control their environments: turning on and off the lights, setting the temperature, or activating their security system.

While we’re in the early days of voice, there are already tens of thousands of skills available on platforms like Alexa to choose from. Every day, brands, voice designers, and developers are creating new ways of using the voice medium to engage with consumers.

So, what’s the difference between a skill, action, shortcut, voice app, or capsule? Well, they’re all the same concept, but the terminology used across platforms is different – for example, Amazon (Alexa) and Microsoft (Cortana) use “skills”, Google (Assistant) uses “actions”, Apple (Siri) uses “shortcuts”, and Samsung (Bixby) uses “capsules”.

To explore the marketplaces for Google or Amazon, check out the links below:

What is your favorite skill? What skill do you wish existed? We look forward to hearing your comments: hello@jargon.com

To stay up to date on the 101 series – as well as product updates and news from Jargon – subscribe to our mailing list below!


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Jargon enables voice applications on services like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to structure, manage, and optimize their content. Join our mailing list to stay current with Jargon news and product updates!

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