Interview with the winner of DevPost Alexa Skills Challenge and Pretzel Labs founder Adva Levin

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Thousands of developers registered for the Alexa Skills Challenge: Kids. Developers representing 30 countries around the globe gave all of their best to succeed and win. We interviewed Adva Levin, the creator of the Grand Prize Winner ($25,000) – Kids Court skill

What was your first experience with Alexa?

Alexa and I have been through so much, I can’t remember!

Your skill won the DevPost challenge for kids skills. It is very impressive. Was it your first skill? Did this change your life? If yes, how?

Adva Levin, Pretzel Labs

Thank you! Kids Court was the first skill I launched. I had another skill in development at the same time and was working on them simultaneously.

It’s too early to say if and how it changed my life. It has definitely opened some interesting doors.

And of course it gave a huge exposure to the skill itself, helping it reach and engage so many new families which makes me really happy.

How long do you create Alexa skills?

I started reading a lot and experimenting with human-robot interactions and conversation design about a year ago, after about 8 years of working for startups in content/product roles. Writing the voice and tone for products – the way products “talk” to users – has always been a major part of what I did, and when I first discovered Alexa I was so excited that now products literally do talk. So the actual alexa skills development – about 6 months. But a lot of steps in my career have led to it.

What are your skills?

  • Kids Court – grand prize winner – a mock court that settles fights for kids (and parents!)
  • Out the Door – Finalist prize (in collaboration with Avichay Liebeskind Mulyan who wrote the code) – an adventure story that helps kids complete their morning routine.
  • Freeze Dancers – a fun dancing game – dance in silly positions and freeze when the music stops
  • Baby Lullaby – a simple skill playing a baby lullaby.

 

What skills are you developing now or plan to develop?

Out the Door helps kids complete their morning routine by following an adventure story. A lot of parents requested a similar skill that will help with going to bed. I plan to launch it soon.

Additionally, I’m working on a project that uses Alexa in education.

And we’re working on a much more complex experience that involves Alexa with another medium. It’s too early to talk about but very exciting.

Can you share your favorite skills from other developers you use regularly?

I start every day by browsing the store and trying out a new skill.

I discovered the Pikachu skill this week and at first I couldn’t understand what it was all about, but I think there’s something hypnotic about it because I just can’t get it out of my head!

A super interesting skill is CLEO. It asks you questions and you’re supposed to answer in another language. The purpose is to eventually collect enough samples to teach Alexa other languages. I think it’s such a mind blowing experiment and I love contributing to it and am waiting to see how it evolves.

Do you communicate with other skill developers? Where?

Yes! The voice first community is really incredible. There are so many interesting people with strong passion for the field and it feels like a really warm and helpful community.

I communicate mostly on:

 

Tell me more about challenges in the Voice User Interface design? What are the tools you use for the design? How do you test concepts, skills?

I start by sketching rough designs and key words on a whiteboard.

Then I love using storyline to design and build skills that don’t require code. Even if a skill does require code, storyline is great for testing the design and making sure everything sounds right.

I play every part multiple times to hear alexa speak it out, like you would have an actor act a script and then I change whatever sounds unnatural. Once I think I have the VUI right, I test the skill on some people and observing them interact always gives me new insights.

The original Kids Court was twice as complicated before I tested it on a group of kids!

What is your educational background? Does it help you in the VUI design?

B.Sc in Math and Economics from Tel Aviv university

MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation from Columbia University

I haven’t even heard of VUI design when I was in school, but in hindsight I think it’s a really good combination for this field. VUI design requires a mix of logics, imagination, creativity, and a good ear for how different people talk.

What do you think the future of voice is and what is your role there?

As technology progresses, I’m sure voice experiences will be much more contextualized. Right now we communicate with the technology mostly through speech-to-text and then text-to-speech, but speech is so much more nuanced than the words people use. E.g. tone, volume, emphasis. I’m really looking forward to seeing that progress and creating more meaningful experiences for people.

If someone wants to start to create Alexa skills, what can you advise?

I would say – start by thinking about the problem you want to solve and figure out what your audience is doing right before they want to start using your skill. Are they washing dishes and need some information when their hands are wet? Are they hungry? Are they fighting? Are they bored and looking for entertainment? How can you design an experience that helps that problem?

Then, try to really listen to how they speak and what they say. With traditional interfaces there are limited ways how one can tap a button. With VUI’s, different people speak significantly differently and you want to get the right response for anyone. So there are lots of things to think about.

The Alexa platform is such an evolving echo system and it feels like it’s at the very early stages and I think it’s a wonderful time to jump in and be creative and push the limits.

If somebody wants to work with you, what are your services?

Pretzel Labs focuses on creating original voice-first games for kids & parents. We are also looking forward to more collaborations with big companies and startups (in toys, education, robotics, etc.) in utilizing our experience in the VUI medium to open new dimensions for existing content or to offer revolutionary new applications for new contents.

I also give talks and workshops about different angles of voice design.

Thank you a lot for the interview! If our readers have more question to you, what is the best way to reach you?

Thank you, it was a pleasure!
email: pretzel.voice@gmail.com
Twitter: @PretzelVoice

 

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Interview with Storyline co-founder and CEO Vasili Shynkarenka

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The best way to predict the future is to create it
Alan Kay

What is Storyline?

Storyline is a tool that makes it easy to create Amazon Alexa skills without writing code.

❱❱ Hier ist  die deutsche Version❰❰
Why did you start to create the platform?

Vasili Shynkarenka

We’ve been working in the field of conversational interfaces for three years already. Previously, I was a COO in a chatbot startup, and then two years ago we founded a company called BotCube. At BotCube, we were building chatbots and voice apps for brands and businesses in Europe.

During those times we found that building Alexa skills is a 2-step process and not many people can do both steps well. You have to (A) create compelling content (scripts, conversation, wording, pauses, etc.) and (B) you have actually to code the skill. It is super hard to go back & forth between these two modes because developers usually don’t understand how to write good conversations and good writers are often non-technical.

We believe that the voice market is going to be massive and the primary use case for voice apps is going to be content. That’s why we founded Storyline – we give creative people an ability to create voice apps without any development included.

Why is Storyline special?

Most people think of Alexa as another software platform, like the smartphone, or the web. That’s not true. The most popular apps on Alexa are not apps that allow you to chat with friends or browse your social networks.

The most popular apps are content apps. The apps that play you soothing music, when you are tired. The apps that you can use to play trivia games with your family over dinner. The apps that can read your kid a story, when she goes to bed. Our unique insight is that these applications are really just content. And you don’t need to be an engineer to create these types of apps. Alexa is going to be a platform that’s dominated by great content creators, and Storyline will power all their apps, just like YouTube powers videos.

Do you have competitors?

There are a couple of prototyping tools on the market, but we’re the only live product that allows creating skills for Amazon Alexa. Prototyping tools are great to play with and explain ideas, but it’s super hard to retain users by being a prototyping tool – because they use the product to prototype and then that’s it. With Storyline, people will stay throughout the process of launching and iterating upon their voice app. We are going to use the data from when the skill is published to improve the design of the skill.

Do you create skills yourself?

We do, I’ve personally built and launched 20 skills so far.

Why?

I think it’s very similar to why people create products in the first place. It’s a fantastic feeling when you can create something, it works, and people use it. Interestingly enough, my most popular skill Brain Healing Sounds I’ve built for myself.

Tell more about your community. Who are your users?

Non-tech people who want to leverage a new platform while it’s early. The #1 Alexa skill for kids, Kids Court, was built on Storyline by one woman [read our interview with the creator of Kids Kourt Adva Levin – bf ] without writing a single line of code (and it was her first Alexa skill). We have some big brands (news magazines, radio stations, podcast creators) using Storyline too.

What are the most exciting skills you love to use? Why?

I love sounds and bedtime stories – they’re easy to use, and the experience is excellent.

How do you see the future of user interfaces and what is your role in it?

There’s a quote by Alan Kay about that: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” We see Storyline as a product that powers all content for smart speakers, just like YouTube powers all videos.

How to start with the platform?

Go to getstoryline.com, sign up, and Storyline will take it from there.

Join Storyline Community on Facebook – there we share best materials, tactics, and strategies for creating engaging Alexa skills.

Yes! And you can find Vasili there too.
Thank you a lot for the interview, for the Storyline and for the best community support there!

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Introduction

Categories NewsPosted on

Hi there,

Happy to meet you! What is this blog about?

I am Alexey Vidanov, the author of this blog. I love all about the VoiceFirst theme and want to share with you my thoughts, learnings and interesting conversations with the industry stars.

If you interested in who I am: My first money I earned at school with software coding for a motor tractor plant. It was in 1989. Since then my passion are digital innovations for the real world.

I developed dialog-oriented user interfaces CUI and chatbots in 2016. I have been working with VUI UX and Alexa Skills since March 2017.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
William Gibson

I got the same great excitement trying to create Alexa skills, like then when I was a child trying to code my first Basic script for Apple II. It is awesome to talk to technology in the same way we talk to each other and be a part of the next big thing.

In September 2017 I began to consult Storyline founders about using Amazon ASK SDK. Storyline is a Y-combinator backed startup, a partner of Amazon and the first choice for creating Alexa skills without programming.

Since March 2017 I have created and published 15 Skills and some more for my customers, I made the very first Skill with Storyline on amazon.de. My skill “Little Red Riding Hood” was also the skill of the month on the Storyline platform in November 2017.

I have advised and supported companies, agencies, start-ups and makers of video content: Menuskope, meinestadt.de GmbH, Toothfairy.tv, XO Projects GmbH and Schiefer & Co GmbH.

Clients

  • Storyline Ltd. (Amazon Alexa platform partner)
  • meinestadt.de GmbH (member of Axel Springer Digital group)
  • Toothfairy.TV (worldwide TV series for children)
  • XO Projects GmbH
  • Schiefer & Co. GmbH
  • Menuskope

Speaker, coach, facilitator

  • Hackathon Talk-To-Me Hamburg, 2017 // I was a coach, two of my teams won prizes
  • 2nd Voice User Interface Meetup in Hamburg, 2017
  • 29th Lean Prototyping Meetup in Berlin, 2018
  • XO-Project Hackaton in Space (planned, April 2018, June 2018)
  • Talk to me Berlin Hackathon (planned, June 2018)

Education

  • CareerFoundry ‘Voice User Interface UX’ 2017 – 2018
  • National Research University of Electronic Technology (MIET) Computer Engineer’s Degree 1990 – 1996

Certificates

  • CareerFoundry Voice User Interface Design
  • Professional Scrum Master PSM I
  • Brainbench Internet IK Analyst
  • Brainbench Web Programmer
  • Brainbench XML
  • Brainbench E-Commerce Concepts Analyst

Languages

  • Russian
  • English
  • German

Write me an email alexey@vidanov.com 
or call me +49 176 57 16 13 13.

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