Make your own Alexa skills for the Amazon Echo using this simple web tool
You expect innovative new product ranges from the likes of Apple and Google, but Amazon surprised everyone when it launched the Echo in the US back in 2014. The smart speaker arrived in the UK two years later, introducing us to its digital assistant Alexa, which could do everything from answering questions to creating playlists.
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Since then, Amazon has rolled out a number of new, more advanced Echos; increased Alexa’s abilities via ‘skills’; and even added it to other Amazon products, such as its Fire tablets and TV devices.
One of Alexa’s most useful features is that you can customise it by adding skills of your own. This usually requires a spot of coding, but here we explore an easier way to make and publish your own skills.
“Alexa, how do I make a skill?”
The easiest way we’ve found to create your own skills is by using Storyline. This new web-based app lets you use a visual drag-and-drop interface to build skills in a matter of minutes. The website offers a selection of videos that show you how to get started. You’ll need to sign into the service, which you can do by connecting your Google account. Once that’s done, you can begin building a skill.
Storyline is so simple to use, you can easily put together something on the fly, but it’s better to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, and the sort of interaction you want to occur between Alexa and the user. We’ll show you how to take your first steps in our Mini Workshop, below. Follow this to set up your blank canvas, then return to the next section for more information.
Mini Workshop | Get started with Storyline
- On the Start page, click the ‘+New skill’ button. You now have two options: you can create a ‘New custom skill’ (which includes trivia games, stories and the ability to look up information); or a ‘News flash briefing’ (news headlines, newsletters or podcast content). We’ll opt to build a custom skill.
- Give your new skill a name. The default suggestion is ‘Daily Morning Trivia’, so stick with that for the time being. Set your language to ‘English (UK)’ and click Start. You’re faced with a mostly blank canvas, with a Welcome Block in the centre. You can drag this around and zoom in and out.
- Double-click the Welcome Block to open it in the sidebar. There are five tools available to build up the skill: ‘Add what Alexa says’, ‘Add what user says’, ‘Handle unexpected user reply’, ‘Add short pre-recorded audio’ and ‘Add JSON API request’.
Five basic tools
There are five tools mentioned in step three of our Mini Workshop, above, let you build up an interaction. You begin with Alexa saying something and asking some questions, then add potential replies. Because it’s harder to guess what a person might say, you can add as many different responses as you like, to cover all the possibilities you can think of. These are turned into separate blocks, in which you can then include new Alexa responses to create a tree-like structure of interaction.
Test a skill directly in your brower. Select the start point in the drop-down menu
Since you can’t possibly guess everything a user might say, you can use the ‘Handle unexpected user reply’ tool to create a new block and add a response for Alexa that will kick in whenever the user says something other than the replies you’ve already added. You can have Alexa say something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I don’t understand’ and connect that block to an earlier step to repeat the original question.
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You should now be ready to start building up your skill. Skills can be previewed at any time to make sure they’re coming together as you’d hoped, and you can fine-tune them, adding different steps and blocks. Skills can be as simple or as complicated as you like.
When you’ve finished building your skill, you can deploy it to your Echo. To do this, you need to connect your Amazon account (the one that’s linked to your Echo). You need to have an Amazon Developer account, too (if you don’t already have one, you can sign up by going to developer.amazon.com).
Access your skills on the Project page. Click the ellipses to rename or delete a skill
The deployment process is very straightforward and, once completed, you can try it out on your Echo by saying “Hi Alexa, open [skill name]” (replacing [skill name] with the name you gave to your new skill).
Add a newsflash briefing skill
Creating a news skill is similar to building a custom skill, but there are different options available. Before you can create one of these skills, you’ll need to connect Storyline to your Amazon account and create a Developer account.
Back in Storyline, enter a name for the Flash Briefing and select your language. Start by choosing a date (most likely the current day) and click the ‘Add post’ button. Enter a title for the new skill and select a post type. This can be Text (Alexa reads something aloud) or Audio (she plays an audio file). If you select the former, a box will open into which you can paste or type the text to read. In the case of the latter, you need to enter a URL for the audio file. You’re limited to a maximum duration of 10 minutes.
Storyline’s Flash Briefing options lets you catch up on the news, or anything else that interests you
When you’re ready, click Save and go to alexa.amazon.com or open your Alexa app if you have one. Click Skills on the left, then click the Your Skills link at the top right. Your News Briefing skill should appear, along with any others you created previously. Select it, then click the Enable button on the next screen.
You can try out the new skill by speaking the suggested phrases (“Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” or “Alexa, what’s in the news?”) to your Echo. Multiple posts can be created and added for the same day, which is handy if you want to include a selection of stories or “on this day in history”-style briefings.
When you’ve finished building your skill, click the Publish button to save it to the Amazon App Store, so other Echo users can install it. The skill will need to pass certification to ensure it’s suitable for inclusion in the store and meets the Alexa policy guidelines. You need to fill in some information, such as the category and subcategory, any testing instructions, the countries and regions it’s suitable for, and short and full descriptions.
You’ll need to fill in a lot of details before you can make your skill available in the Amazon App Store
You won’t be able to make any changes once your Alexa skill is undergoing the certification process, so you should test your skill fully before submitting it. If you do spot an error after publishing, you can withdraw the skill from the certification process and resubmit the corrected version afterwards.
Mini Workshop | Build your first skill
- Double-click the Welcome Block and, in the sidebar, click the ‘Add what Alexa says’ button at the bottom. In the box that opens, type (or paste) the first thing that you want Alexa to say. If you want it to say more than one thing, just repeat the process. Next, click ‘Add what user says’.
- Add as many responses as you can think of. In our example, we’re listing trivia categories. Select the first of your user responses. You can add synonyms for that answer by clicking the menu button. Clicking the arrow lets you connect this reply to a separate block. Click ‘Create new block’.
- Storyline will create a new block connected to the Welcome one. Select it and that block will open in the sidebar, ready for you to add your responses. Click the Welcome Block to select another user reply and create a new block for it. Click Play to test your skill in the browser.