“Alexa, I Want to Build an Effective Voice Application”

How to Prototype an Alexa Skill Faster Than You Can Say “Proof of Concept”

The market for voice activated devices has exploded and is swiftly catalyzing new user behaviors. According to eMarketer report from July 2019, 31 million people in the U.S. will shop via a smart speaker this year, up 31.6% over 2018. The field is crowded by multiple players – from Google to Apple to Microsoft – but it’s Amazon in the pole position. Amazon commands 61% of the market to second-place Google’s 24%, according to a recent Voicebot survey.

Indeed, as of January this year, Amazon reported more than 100 million Alexa devices sold, and estimates put ownership of smart speakers at 26% of the U.S. 18+ population. And so it will come as little surprise that many brands are wondering how to get into the voice arena and are curious about what it takes to get the Echo Dot rolling.

Ogilvy has developed voice applications for a range of clients in the healthcare to CPG verticals, and we recently participated in a competition that crystalized a game plan for fast-prototyping Alexa skills. Our task – as part of the Amazon Alexa Cup – was to conceptualize and prototype a new Alexa skill that would solve a common user problem in a simple and meaningful way. We needed to go from blank paper to functional skill in two weeks with a team of just five colleagues. We would also need to do this around our day-to-day responsibilities with a budget accounting only for staff time and some stock film and photography. The timetable and criteria were challenging, and we’d be functioning quite quickly for any agency, large or small. It was an exercise that provides a helpful template for brands seeking to gain insights in the world of voice marketing and commerce.

Our team was drafted from several Ogilvy departments – some of whom had Alexa experience and some who didn’t. As is often the case, such a blend of experts and “non-experts” can be an effective recipe for unlocking fresh thinking and energy. We quickly rallied around an idea centered on how small acts of household cleaning can lead to reductions in stress and contribute to feelings of achievement and mindfulness. We called our skill “Clean/Up” and designed it for an imaginary aroma-therapeutic home leaning brand called Mindful Cleaner.

Here’s what we learned along the way:

The Power of Five: Our nimble team of five consisted of an account director, a strategist, a channel planner, a creative technologist, and a developer. The clear distinctions between our skillsets was an accelerant. It minimized stepping on each others’ toes and maximized the breadth of talents represented.

Collaboration & Complementarity: With such a small team, we had to be sure to maximize the contribution of each member. While each of us was responsible for a very specific aspect of the program, everyone was free to contribute at each step of the journey. That meant the account lead was encouraged to contribute creative ideas, the strategist could recommend interaction improvements, the creative technologist could suggest a development change, or the channel planner could comment on the dialogue. In fact, all of that happened – and more. 

Process with Purpose: With so little time, we knew we’d need to move quickly and get through reviews with a minimum of wheel spin. We set up a Slack channel, where we’d share everything from scripts to user flows to time tables to stock photography. Almost all of our communication took place on Slack. We also had two standing Zoom meetings a week, each just 30 minutes long. All team members were invited, but we didn’t wait for everyone to show up to move ahead to the next step. Our quorum was whoever showed up. If any mission-critical detail was missing, we’d track it down in the interim.

Making the Voice Visual: As with any digital experience, our team needed a roadmap to guide conceptualization and development. Our Voice User Interface (VUI) diagram outlined the dialogue and customer inputs, as well as all the third-party integration points needed. By having a concrete design diagram to poke holes in, we were able to streamline all our stakeholder reviews, development sprints, and even dialogue recording sessions.

Test & Iterate: Once the prototype was built, we knew we needed to get real-world feedback. And fast. In under a day, we wrote and ran a survey on SurveyMonkey; the feedback was gathered and combined with internal focus groups in two cities. The insights guided our prototype adjustments over the next 3-4 days.

Not About the Tech: Building a skill is, of course, a technical exercise. But we framed the challenge as a consumer problem to solve, rather than as an exercise in code execution or an innovation project. We would continually level set ourselves in this way, similarly to the way Jeff Bezos himself states with his number one Amazon Leadership Principle: “Customer Obsession.

Start with the Customer and Work Backwards.” It was always consumer first, code second. That being said, Amazon complimented the quality of our code and the sophistication of our prototype.

You Said It Was a Competition … How Did You Do?

Ogilvy’s skill won the Midwest Championship and made it to the Final 3 in the U.S.A. competition. While we fell a little short of bringing home the Cup, we are continuing to iterate upon the idea and are excited about working with our clients bringing the refined skill to consumers in the coming months. Just as important, we built additional internal expertise and knowledge for capitalizing on this fast-evolving business and marketing opportunity to convey to our clients.

If you would like to learn more about developing a voice application, please reach out to [email protected]
Director, Creative Technology

Joe is the Director of Creative Technology working in Ogilvy’s Chicago office. He is also the North America head of WPP’s Center of Excellence for Amazon (ACE), an integrated team dedicated to making brands matter on Amazon.

Individual Beyond the Personal, Immersive Experience Evolve

The merger of technology and humans has been in the works since the first human picked up a rock to break open a nut. We are now in an era where even the most banal objects are connecting to virtually everything else and are actively capturing millions of data points, such as when and what you buy, and soon even what your heart rate was while you were making a purchase.

These ubiquitous connections are defining the way brands connect with customers, employees, and other stakeholders. These have become the definitive standard of the types of engagements and experiences that people have come to expect.

The experiences are slowly beginning to encompass practically every part of our lives, and what seems like new and unusual ways of engaging with brands is quickly becoming the new normal. Being able to compare prices using a vast online marketplace while standing in an aisle in a local shop was almost unimaginable 15 years ago, yet today it’s become a routine part of our purchase journey.

As digital engagement matures, technology enables the possibility for brands and consumers to create experiences that far outweigh pure transaction. Actions such as predicting when a consumer will need something or removing a pain point during a particular touchpoint in the journey will become the defining factors consumers take into consideration to inform their purchase decisions.

Currently the term digital is used to reference the myriad devices we engage with proactively, including phones, tablets, computers, and voice devices. What happens as devices become proactive themselves and begin to predict our choices and needs? The data they capture will be used to individualize the experience that surrounds us.

In testing, Expedia is letting bookers explore hotel rooms before a booking using virtual reality (VR), and Intel True View is creating live 360 degree streams of sports games for fans to view remotely. As engaging as these are, they’re still mostly about the technology and not about meeting individuals and their unique needs.

As immersive experiences become distinctive to each person and as new interfaces surface and become smarter; they begin to merge into a seamless system of services uniquely positioned to bring value to each consumer. It will be less about the interface and more about the service. Brands that focus on consumer need and deliver services and products aligned to a strong brand purpose will win regardless of the technology used to deliver the message.

The individual with his or her unique mood, nuanced preference, and full personal context will be the defining way to create immersive experiences. The future will be the full articulation of the long-awaited promise for the audience of one.

Consulting Partner

Dayoán is a consulting partner for Ogilvy Consulting leading the Customer Experience and Digital Transformation practice. His role focuses on the overall consumer experience combining creative, psychology, and technology to uncover strategic and business opportunities.