Who Tells Alexa What to Say?

Shaun Withers

Shaun Withers

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In the past week, announcements from Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have confirmed the staggering growth in voice assistant adoption. 21% of American adults and an increasing number of users abroad have a smart speaker at home and many more have access to voice assistants on their smartphones and other devices. As more users experiment talking with Alexa, a natural question is: who tells the assistants what to say?

Let’s use Alexa as an example. It can be tricky for a new user to decipher who informs Alexa what to say, because her voice sounds consistent. In reality, there are two types of interactions that can happen with Alexa:

  1. Interactions with skills (voice apps) that are powered by Amazon. These are described as “first party” or 1P.
  2. Interactions with skills that are powered by another entity. These are described as “third party” or 3P.
Amazon Alexa

What Is a 1st Party Alexa Skill?

A helpful analogy is to think of the voice assistant platforms as equivalent to mobile platforms. On a smartphone, the apps that are built by the company that made the phone (or operating system) are referred to as 1st party apps. These apps often come preinstalled on the phone and provide basic functionality, such as making a phone call or using the phone’s camera. Other 1st party apps utilize some of the company’s popular services, such as Google Maps or Apple Music, for example. The same concept applies to voice assistants. When you ask a voice assistant to set a timer, ask for the weather, or play a song, you are typically interacting with a first party function that is provided by the company that owns the voice assistant.

Third Party Apps

What Is a 3rd Party Alexa Skill?

As we’ve written before, there are plenty more applications, called skills or actions (or more broadly, voice apps) that are built by your favorite brands and use Alexa, Google Assistant, and others as a way to reach their users. These are described as 3rd party voice apps and brands are rapidly realizing their potential. The good news is that they are easy to enable and cost nothing to try out (at least for now).

How Do You Enable an Alexa Skill?

To enable an Alexa Skill, visit the Skills Store on your Alexa smartphone app or web browser, or simply ask Alexa to enable the skill for you. Much like downloading a smartphone app, enabling a skill allows you to open the application when you please, but instead of selecting the app with your thumb, you simply ask Alexa to open the skill or ask the skill to do something. For example, you may say “Alexa, open Escape the Room” or “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride.”

Escape the Room

Google Assistant takes a different approach and doesn’t require you to enable an action. Simply ask Google Assistant to do something or talk to the product of your choosing and the action will appear.

Interacting with an Alexa Skill:

Once you have opened an Alexa Skill, a welcome message will typically play and prompt you to interact. Even though you will often hear the same voice, you are now interacting with content that has been written and developed by the brand or individual that built the 3rd party skill. Occasionally developers will use a different sounding voice of their choosing, such as the game Angel Investor, which helps signal that you are now in a 3rd party skill.

After the voice app asks you a question it will play a prompting sound that signals it is listening for your answer. When this happens, you don’t need to use the wake word, such as Alexa or Hey Google, in the beginning of your sentence. After providing an answer or asking your own question, you can usually ask a follow on question to carry on the interaction. A well-built voice app will lead you through a dialog that feels like a natural conversation.

In this blog post we mainly focus on Alexa Skills, but there are plenty of other voice apps across the various voice assistant platforms. What is your favorite 3rd party voice app? Do you wish one of your favorite brands had a voice app? We look forward to hearing your comments: hello@jargon.com

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