How Richard Herring's Emergency Questions became an Alexa Skill

How Richard Herring's Emergency Questions became an Alexa Skill

Back in January, Adam Gingery wrote a piece for FutureBook about why voice search would be this year's most disruptive publishing force. Finally, in October, it seems like the book world might be catching on. Rui Teimao is the founder of Conversation Design - an agency that designs messaging and voice applications - and he's just published an Amazon Alexa skill for comedian and author Richard Herring.

The skill (Alexa's version of an app) is based on Herring’s book Emergency Questions, which is already available in print and as an iOS/Android app. Asking questions taken from from the book, it is designed "simply to amuse and delight fans".

"It’s started as a very simple app," Teimao (right) explains, "but we have lots of ideas of how to develop it further. I’ve searched high and low and can’t find any other book that has been published across these three formats - print, mobile app, voice app - so I think this might be an industry first in terms of the mix of platforms."

We decided to dig deeper into the decision-making, design and production processes behind this voice-activated experiment, and hauled Teimao in for a Q&A.

Why did you think the book was a good fit for an Alexa skill tie-in?

The book is a compilation of emergency questions that Richard uses in his live show and podcast interviews. This kind of one-shot, short form content is a great fit for Alexa. There are many ‘jokeʼ and ‘factʼ skills that use this one-shot content mechanic. Unfortunately many of them seem to be made by programers rather than comedians. There was an opportunity to do something relatively quickly, using tried and tested mechanic, but with better quality writing.

What makes you think thereʼs demand for such an enhancement from your target audience?

Honestly, we donʼt know how much demand there is. The main target for the project is 'can we give a few people a laugh'? There are few case studies in the voice industry with clear numbers, so one of my motivations behind this project is to explore things like conversion from promotion to user, user retention and usage timings.

How did you and Richard collaborate? Was it through the publisher or a personal contact?

I approached Richard direct by email. We had no prior connection but Richard was intrigued and brought Chris Evans (his partner at his production company, Sky Potato) into the email conversation. Within a few emails over a couple of days we had an agreement to produce and publish the skill. The process was somewhat simplified by being explicitly non-commercial. Publishers can charge for skills, and Amazon makes payments to developers of the most popular skills. We simply agreed that if this skill ever generates any revenues, they will be donated to the charity SCOPE.

What were the chief challenges in creating the skill?

Technically it was pretty straightforward. The code and content were produced and combined over just a couple of days. Amazonʼs certification process did present a few challenges. Taken out of context, some of the questions are fairly open to misinterpretation. At one point during certification the skill was rejected and blocked for inciting race hate. We had to review the questions and take out a couple that, although intended in good humour, contravened Amazonʼs content policies pretty clearly.

What are your plans to take this voice interactivity further?

At the moment the skill is only available in the UK and US. Amazon recently expanded Alexa into India, so adding geographic reach will be next. I expect we will update some of the questions periodically - the skill contains over one hundred, a subset of the full book/app content.

Weʼve also prototyped Alexa answering questions from the book (as opposed to asking them). This would be really interesting as it creates a brand new interactive experience for owners of the book. However, unlike the project to date which reused existing content , this requires a lot of writing work putting the answers together and Richardʼs very busy (not least with a brand new baby) so that may take a little while.

Whatʼs the feedback/ success so far?

Weʼve only been live a few days so itʼs a bit too early to tell but the initial signs are positive. User numbers are a little higher than expected and itʼs got a solid 5 stars from the Amazon Skill store reviews so far. One tweet said “Finally Alexa becomes useful”. :-)