Interview With Ray Szasz of Star Commander 🚀 and many more Alexa skills

Hello! Tell us a little bit about your background and an overview of how you got started in the Voice Space/Alexa Development!

I have been in the IT field for 38 years as a developer, business analyst, product architect, support specialist and customer service expert for a multitude technologies and industries. I got my first exposure to voice back in 1993 setting up call routing and an IVR platform to support retirement fund balance inquiry and fund balance transfer services nationwide for over 40,000 customers.

Then in 1999 I setup call routing services and an IVR platform for DIRECTV NFL Sunday Ticket customers. Then in 2001 I designed call routing, customer service processes and an IVR platform for ORBITZ.I played a key role in pioneering and implementing the ORBITZ customer service model that made the brand famous. The first ORBITZ Travel Alert SMS text messages sent to the first live ORBITZ customers in 2001 were actually generated and sent via a PC that I configured with a team of developers.

I discovered an Alexa YouTube video two years ago about the early Alexa skill kit release and I never did anything with it, but kept it on my shortlist of technology that needed to be followed. I finally started developing Alexa skills in April 2018 and setup several skills from the Github example projects in the Alexa Skill Kit Developer console, but I never published anything until I discovered and started using Storyline in May.

I currently publish under Preeminent Technologies LLC which is my own consulting company, but I have yet to incorporate Alexa Skills into the brand and need to setup a website.

What Alexa skills have you created so far and what was your inspiration and motivation for creating your Alexa skills?

I have created 11 sound skills to date mainly starting with sound I wanted to use to help our granddaughter sleep as well as some other sounds and I eventually published them. I created one of Alexa’s favorite sound skills, Flamenco Guitar Serenade, give it a try and you will see what I mean.

My Sound Skills:

  • Baby Womb Sounds
  • Bamboo Water Sounds
  • Flamenco Guitar Serenade
  • Garden Sounds
  • Harp Serenade
  • Monk Serenade
  • Sailing Ship Sounds
  • Swamp Night Serenade
  • Tibetan Bowl Serenade
  • Underground Cave Sounds
  • Upset Baby Calmer
  • Star Commander

I also stepped into the adventure story space and created a skill called Star Commander that strives to teach decision making and teamwork concepts. It’s based on the user playing the role of a Star Commander where you are put in charge of a star-ship. You get to pick from either flying solo or with a co-pilot. The adventure teaches you that flying with a co-pilot allows you to complete missions. The skill also teaches the user about current space mission endeavors and space facts. This skill went live on June 17 and was selected as Skill of the Month for June 2018 by Storyline CEO Vasili Shynkarenka.

Dave Isbitski (Amazon Alexa Evangelist) recorded himself playing it on his FireTV Cube (see Twitter) and Paul Cutsinger responded that he enjoyed the skill as well.

The life skill learning lessons, space mission scenarios and space fact aspects of Star Commander will hopefully attract and retain users. The skill is loaded with sound effects and about 6 different voice characters, all developed in Storyline using about 13 Google spreadsheets where I can control most of the voice interactions and sound file mappings.

How did you go about building your Alexa Skills?

So far, I have built everything using Storyline. They have been expanding their platform functionality almost monthly with features that previously were only available using the Amazon ASK (Alexa Skills Kit) Developer platform.

The Storyline team intends to eventually allow you to port your skills to other voice assistant platforms as well. There are other platforms that allow you to build and publish voice assistant apps such as Jovo, Govocal.AI and Voice Apps, but I have yet to explore their individual offerings.

What are your future goals for your Alexa skills?

I will be adding new sound skills and expanding into all of the available languages. I also want to offer a sound mixer skill that will feature multiple custom combinations of my sound files. I have plans to increase the mission interaction points in Star Commander as well as adding an Explore option, additional Learning features, session persistence and game scoring.

Currently the biggest challenge for Alexa skill developers is figuring out how to market your skills so that they can be found in the regional Alexa Skill Stores or via search engines.

I decided to experiment with running a BING Ad campaign for Star Commander in August to test driving skill enablement, but it was not successful. I had spent $55 for 3,040 ad impressions and 232 ad clicks over 8 days and did not see an increase over usual daily skill enables. A lot of this has to do with the fact that you cannot get a deep link into the Alexa skill store that triggers skill enablement.

All I really accomplished was displaying the Alexa Skill Store showing my skill name and icon 232 times with about 80% of the traffic coming from smart phones. Both Geoffrey Colon (Microsoft Communication Designer) and I discussed this issue in the Facebook Storyline Community group and he has committed to getting with the BING AD team to drive adoption of an Alexa Skill Store deep link solution. I expect to get an update from Geoffrey in September.

Any advice for Alexa skill builders/creators just starting out?

Stop thinking about it and just get started. I do recommend Storyline as a great starting point, but any of the available graphical tools I mentioned above will work.

The whole idea of using these tools is to allow skill builders to concentrate on content while minimizing the need for technical knowledge and experience.

When developing a skill go deep on content and wide on the interaction. You have to think about your skills persona characteristics and use that to drive your skills intended emotional reaction see article

“Stop Thinking about it and just get started” - Ray Szasz

When you create a skill, picking an effective Invocation name is key to your skills success. You also should setup skill keywords (30 maximum) for each skill. Keywords will help users find your skills when they search the Alexa Skill Store.

Remember, users do not always search for an Invocation name; they will likely just enter keywords related to a skill. If you use enough effective keywords your skill will be listed alongside of skills that potentially have many more users and positive reviews than your skill does. KEYWORDS ARE IMPORTANT.

There is a lot off great Alexa content on Github containing most of the popular skill categories, but it is all geared toward using the Alexa skill kit Developer Environment. Also, check out the Twitch TV Alexa channel where Amazon developers teach skill development during live weekly sessions, plus there are tons of archived sessions to view as well. I recommend listening to all of the Alexa Dev Chat developer podcasts by Dave Isbitski, Amazon’s lead Alexa Evangelist.