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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