Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) like Alexa and Google Assistant are a powerful way to communicate with technology and are set to dominate the digital landscape in the next few years. With this in mind, the FX Digital R&D team thought about how an Alexa development can make communicating with people easier too, especially for those who struggle with screen accessibility.

Alexa has great built-in tools for live communication, such as conference calling and video chat with the Echo Show, but it doesn’t have a popular solution for interacting with existing communication channels – notably email. As a business, we use Google’s GSuite platform for our emails, so we set about creating a Gmail Alexa Skill.

VUI

One important aspect of creating a great voice experience, is ensuring the app is clear and concise.

From an early stage, we decided that the Gmail Alexa Skill should be able to perform the most common of email-related tasks: check a user’s inbox for any unread emails, notify the user of the email’s contents and give a set of operations that can be performed on the emails.

The screen on the Echo Show and Echo Spot devices helps to give users more information, but interactions with Alexa should be considered “voice first” – a user shouldn’t be expected to tap a screen if they are using the far-field microphones installed on Echo devices. It defeats the object.

Helping Users with the Gmail Alexa Skill

Contextual help was a must. This is where the user can trigger the AMAZON.HelpIntent by saying ‘help’, ‘help me’ etc. The skill will respond with useful information about what utterances can successfully be employed, based on the current context.

For example, Alexa would give different advice after reading out the snippet of an email, compared to informing the user of the number of unread emails they have. Providing help to users is a requirement as per Amazon’s checklist for skill certification.

Account Linking

Calling external APIs helps create a rich and meaningful user experience for voice skills. However, since voice users expect answers immediately, API calls need to be quick, considered and, sometimes, cached.

Since the FX Digital team are proficient PHP developers, we decided to use this language to create the My Emails skill, instead of the popular Node.js language. Google has recently launched a PHP SDK for their API platform and, initially we decided to use it. However, upon testing, this solution was too heavy (and unnecessary) as API calls to some user’s inboxes would take too long, detracting from the actual voice experience. Instead, we decided to use native HTTP integration to Google’s API endpoints. These require the use of an OAuth authorization token given to us by Alexa once the user links their Amazon account to their Gmail account, which is within the scope of our skill.

Results

User of the My Emails Gmail Alexa Skill are able to check email while carrying out other tasks, like cooking or typing. Or dancing. And initial testing shows more unwanted messages are being maked as spam thanks to the skill’s ability to respond to users saying, “Alexa, that’s spam”, while an email is being read out.

The fact we chose not to allow the My Emails skill to delete email, means that marking an email as spam is the only way to remove it from the inbox. When Alexa reads out the emails, it also gives spam emails the same importance weighting as other emails.

Next Steps

As with any software, Alexa Skills can be updated with new features, security enhancements, and improved functionality.

We have options on how we can improve the My Emails skill in the future. For instance, we could allow users to send a quick reply to emails, or sign up to Google Cloud’s notification service to forward new email alerts to Alexa. If you have any ideas yourself, we’d love to hear from you. Email us at voice@fxdigital.uk.

 

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