At the start of this month, we launched our first Alexa ‘skill’ – a Flash Briefing skill for the Island Echo that provides news updates from their website to your Alexa device.

To enable the skill, simply say, “Alexa, enable Isle of Wight News”. If you can’t speak right now, you can enable it here on the Amazon webpage: http://bit.ly/IslandEchoSkill

What is a Flash Briefing Skill?

‘Skills’ are applications that we, and other developers, create to extend the functionality of Amazon’s smart assistant – called Alexa. Alexa runs on any Echo device. Most recently, Amazon have launched a campaign to get Alexa into 3rd party manufacturer’s devices, meaning that you’ll soon be able to speak to her outside of your home: while driving in cars, on Windows PCs and in smart home appliances.

Island Echo

The Island Echo is a 24/7 breaking news website for the Isle of Wight. It has 160,000 website visitors per month and a huge following on social media. Island Echo was keen to embrace this new technology which is set to dominate the next 10 years of tech.

Brief

The skill for the Island Echo needed to seamlessly integrate with their existing website and allow Amazon customers to hear summaries of a range of articles published on the site. Our web services that co were required to not interfere with the existing WordPress website and its operation should be invisible to a web browser user. This meant that it should not impact on site performance either.

Design and Development

Amazon have strict policies stating what is acceptable for skills to be certified and published on their platform, so the design and style of the skill needed to respect these requirements and these were at the forefront of our thinking. We were able to use the Island Echo’s favicon icon for the skill icon. In terms of voice design, we opted to use Alexa’s own voice to read articles from the website – this isn’t uncommon. When people ask Alexa a question, ‘What’s in the news?’ for example, they expect Alexa to reply. Alexa has one of the best text to speech services in the world. As we were also using their Flash Briefing API, it needed to conform to those requirements too. We weren’t able to create an advanced intent schema for this skill, as Flash Briefing skills need to be a replication of a template – that is what allows multiple Flash Briefing skills to be part of a users Flash Briefing.

The design of ‘cards’ that appear in the Alexa app and web application were also governed by the Flash Briefing API. However, we were able to provide a link from each article card to the Island Echo webpage of that article. That way, anyone who was interested in the article they’ve just heard a summary of, can load up the app and click the link to the webpage for more information.

For the back-end website connector, we provided a simple and easy to use settings page in WordPress, and this allows for full customisation of the Alexa feed. The plugin we developed was easy to install and setup. We opted for a secure way to access the articles from the site to prevent snooping or unauthorised access.

In design and development, it was clear that we needed a way of providing the article data to Alexa in the quickest way possible; we opted for a caching solution to speed up response times. A hosted service through us also means we can sterilise or change the feed content if Amazon’s policies on content change, without requesting that the client does any extra work.

Summary

We designed and built a Flash Briefing Alexa skill, comprising of a WordPress plugin that allows full customisation of the feed. Without any extra work necessarily, the Island Echo can publish articles to the Alexa platform benefit from an emerging, innovative way to source news.