From MD to Alexa Skills Developer: My Journey
A Little About Me & this Article
Upon retirement, I was presented with a wonderful opportunity to spend more time on things I had little time for during my working years, as well as expand my horizons in new directions. I am indeed blessed to have this opportunity, since I had a cardiac arrest over 15 years ago, fortunately in my cardiologist’s office. Thanks to him, his staff and a defibrillator, I have lived to see both my children get married, play with my grandkids and celebrate my 38th wedding anniversary. And, get a chance to play with Alexa!
In this article, I hope to share my excitement in exploring a new direction I took – building Alexa skills.
“Skill” is the term Amazon uses to refer to a program that is used on one of its Echo/Alexa devices. There are over 70,000 skills available to enable and use. Most are free. Each of these 70,000 had been reviewed by Amazon and certified before they became live and available. Thus far, I have had 13 skills certified and live.
You can see all the skills in the table at the bottom of the article.
What Attracted Me to Alexa Development
I practiced internal medicine for about 14 years and then moved into medical management. Prior to my retirement, I was the Medical Director for an Accountable Care Organization. Looking back throughout my career, I tried to leverage technology to help my staff and the patients with whom we worked. Beyond using computers at work, I learned enough about them, web design & programming as a hobby to create an interactive website, called InsightsForHealth (1), that supports healthy weight loss through healthier eating and exercise. I started it in 2006 using an older programming language called ColdFusion and a MySQL database. It is still functional but looks very much antiquated by today’s standards.
After retirement, I spent some time learning a bit of Android & Apple programming, but it wasn’t until 2016 when I discovered Alexa & the ability for anyone to learn to program it and successfully publish skills. I had found my ultimate hobby!
How to Learn to Program a Skill
From my viewpoint, programming these Alexa skills gives me an opportunity to be intellectually challenged and create something of potential value.
Amazon provides much in the way of resources to help you learn by doing. They have video support, online forums, access to experts, and skill examples that you can build for yourself (2). Beyond Amazon, there are many educational resources, many free or at low cost, to teach you Alexa skill building and the programming language you choose if you wish to build more sophisticated skills. For example, there are online courses through Udemy, Big Nerd Ranch, and Codecademy.
How I Choose a Skill to Program
I am always on the look-out for opportunities to build an Alexa skill that might be useful. My first skill, “Food Manager”, was created to track foods that a user may often throw away, so they could be identified while they are still fresh, and either be used or donated to a charity.
Sometimes, the toughest thing is choosing a name for the skill that is brief, catchy and explains the purpose of the skill. I usually come up with a few possibilities and get input from friends. Part of the process is searching the published skills to make sure the name I choose is unique. This also gives me a chance to see what other skills that may be out there that are similar to my idea. That gives me a chance to identify some features to put in my skill that may be missing in others.
Amazon gives the developer a way to track some information about how popular their skills are in terms of several measurements, including Unique Customers & Utterances.
The Unique Customer measure definition is obvious, but I should explain Utterances. It measures the number of times customers speak within the skill. So, if 100 Unique Customers only generate 100 Utterances, it suggests many of the customers aren’t reusing the skill.
My most popular skills are “Blood Pressure Check” with a little over 1,000 Unique Customers and over 5,300 Utterances and “Healthy Snack Tips” with over 1,280 Unique Customers and almost 3,700 Utterances. Most of my others are relatively low.
Other than word of mouth and posts on social media, I don’t market my skills, so I’m not too surprised by the low ones. I attribute the high marks for “Blood Pressure Check” to the fact I had been asked to demonstrate it last October at a conference in Boston. I am not sure how “Healthy Snack Tips” is doing so well other than possibly because it is very easy to use, all you need to say is, “Alexa, open Healthy Snack Tips and give me a tip.”
My latest one, “Our Little Secret”, which only went live a week ago, at the time I’m writing this, has 39 Unique Customers and 294 Utterances. I hope it exceeds 100 customers in its first month.
Benefits to Me
In addition to the intellectual stimulation, I feel that I am connected to this new technological revolution of voice.
I often use the term “relevant.” I feel relevant!
The support and process that Amazon has in place allows anyone, even a 70-year-old, to create and publish a skill! Plus, I am publishing skills that I think can help people or amuse them while I continue to learn.
In addition to these intangible benefits, I have been given opportunities to connect with others with experience in developing and publishing Alexa skills. Last fall I was invited by Boston Children’s Hospital to participate in an Alexa hackathon and showcase my Blood Pressure Check skill at the Connected Health Conference in Boston. That was an amazing experience not only to participate, but also to see all the innovation to improve healthcare delivery, including both voice & non-voice technologies.
Some Skills to Try
As a 70-year-old physician, I have been on both sides of the stethoscope, doctor and patient. Consequently, many of my Alexa skills are related to health and living a healthier lifestyle. Others are more for amusement. State Explorer is a skill to help kids learn about the United States. Anyone with an Echo device, can search the Alexa App on their smartphone for any of my skills or any of the 70,000 others.
The following are three of my 13 skills that I wanted to highlight:
Track My Dose
People who take daily medicines for cholesterol or blood pressure typically have a routine that works for them.
The problem I am trying to address with this skill is how to more easily manage the as-needed-medications that a person may take for only a week or two.
These are medicines that you might take for the flu or a sports injury. In these instances, you may be taking several drugs with different dosing schedules. Because you are taking them only if you need them, you need to have a way to easily record a dose which can then be retrieved when you are considering taking another dose.
You could use a pad and pen, but with this skill, Alexa makes it so much easier.
More than one person in a household can use it & each user can have their own virtual medicine cabinet. Before a dose gets logged, the user tells Alexa the name of the medicine and its dosing frequency in hours which she enters into their virtual medicine cabinet. Then the user can use the skill to log a dose or find out if they can take another dose, since Alexa remembers the time and date of the last dose of that drug.
When I was sick with a sinus infection and chest cold this winter and juggling several medicines, I found it invaluable.
View Dr. Kolock's introductory video to "Track my Dose".
Healthy Text Scheduler
This is the most sophisticated of my three skills regarding healthy eating tips. After you register with your cell phone number & cell carrier, you can ask Alexa to schedule recurring text messages to help reinforce healthier eating behaviors.
It solves the problem of being reminded of the right behavior when you need that reminder.
I wrote it because I knew from my background in behavior change, that one of the best ways to adopt healthier eating behaviors is by repetitive positive reinforcement. You need to receive messages that help you substitute a healthier behavior for an unhealthy one, ideally when you are about to default to your usual unhealthy habit.
“Healthy Text Scheduler” uses Alexa to schedule text messages for you to do just that. After you register with your cell phone number & cell carrier, you can ask Alexa to schedule recurring text messages at a time you need to hear them to help reinforce healthier eating behaviors. So, you can schedule tips around breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals or morning, afternoon and evening snacks. You can schedule as many text messages as you like for as long as you like.
I was not trying to solve a problem with this one. It’s strictly for laughs.
This is a skill that pokes fun at the official wine reviews. I belong to a club that holds monthly wine tastings where each wine is described in great detail. I created it because my personal palate is so unsophisticated that it can’t distinguish an aftertaste of tannins from toothpaste!
Since I’m still learning, I would greatly appreciate any feedback, positive or negative, for improving these skills or ideas for new ones.
If this article prompts you to try your hand at building a skill, feel free to reach out to me. Hopefully, it will encourage all of you to start to explore those 70,000 skills.
Bob's Alexa Skills
|1||Food Manager||5/26/17||Helps the user track the recommended expiration dates of their food items so they can either use them or donate them before those dates are reached. Demo YouTube Video.|
|2||Blood Pressure Check||6/1/17||Compares a user’s BP readings to guidelines, considering the presence or absence of heart disease or diabetes. Other BP information is available to the user.|
|3||State Explorer||12/25/17||A kid’s skill that gives information about each state and provides quizzes to help master that information. Demo YouTube Video.|
|4||My Weight Loss Coach||1/27/18||Tracks the most recent weights and compares to the user’s goal. It also tracks cardio & resistance training. Demo YouTube Video.|
|5||Healthy Snack Tips||2/1/18||Provides randomized tips on snacks.|
|6||Your Healthy Tips||8/9/18||Provides random tips on healthy nutrition or exercise, based on the user’s preference.|
|7||Your Memory Challenge||10/15/18||A skill that tests the user’s short-term memory by presenting 5 brief scenarios and then asks questions about the content of those scenarios.|
|8||Friends Meeting Friends||12/13/18||Alexa will introduce you to some of her friends by speaking a random greeting voiced by one of the 27 new voices that developers can now use in their skills.|
|9||Your Expert Log||12/20/18||Enables the user to easily store and retrieve recommendations from friends for physicians, handymen, lawyers and other service providers.|
|10||Healthy Text Scheduler||2/8/19||Enables the user to schedule text messages on topics of healthy eating with the goal of helping them incorporate healthier behaviors in their lives.|
|11||Track My Dose||3/7/19||Designed to help the user track as-needed medications that they keep in their virtual medicine cabinet. Entrant in the Amazon Alexa Multimodal Challenge. Demo YouTube Video.|
|12||Wine Jester||3/14/19||Spoofs the wine reviews commonly given at wine tastings by taking a different approach. This skill has “learned” thousands of bottles of wine through osmosis and will give you a review based on your holding the wine near your Alexa device. Of course, this premise has no basis in reality, but Wine Jester lives in a world of fantasy.|
|13||Our Little Secret||4/24/19||Our Little Secret provides a humorous peek into what you might be saying in your home. All the responses are entirely fictitious, but it makes you wonder what you would hear if "walls could talk" or your favorite Voice Assistant decided to share!|
(2) For Amazon resources about Alexa skill development, This webpage, is a good place to start. Click on the “Skill Builders” menu item and start exploring some of the menu items that drop down.
Discuss, Comment, Ask Questions
from Kei Befu (unverified) at Nov 8 2019 - 1:59pm
I'm not sure if a demented person could remeber what to say to Alexa. Have you experiemented this?
from Dr. Bob Kolock (unverified) at Nov 9 2019 - 5:31pm
The National Institute On Aging that is part of the NIH gives this definition of dementia, "Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities." The severity of symptoms of dementia increases over time. So, people with the more severe cases would not be able to use devices like Alexa. They need help with activities of daily living, such as dressing & bathing. Earlier in its course, Alexa can be used and can help them get information and hear music possibly easier than trying to do the same functions with a computer. Some experts recommend using mental exercises to maintain and improve mental functioning, so Alexa can be another tool to help in that regard. Finally, caregivers can set up reminders so that Alexa can remind their loved ones with mental decline to perform certain activities on a routine basis.
I hope this answered your question.
from Pete (unverified) at Oct 1 2019 - 9:31pm
I'm just beginning with Alexa. I'd appreciate some specific references to learning sites. Any recommendations for books or Kindle guides would also be nice.
from Bob Kolock (member) at Oct 2 2019 - 4:23pm
I think the first resource you should check out is this web page from Amazon:
Once there, click the Build Alexa Skills button on the left.
As you explore it, you will see opportunities to take a course, or build a skill yourself or using a "blueprint." Once you set up a free Developer Account & choose to create a skill, you'll see a lot more resources including Forums, Skill examples.
Unfortunately, you caught at a bad time since I'll have very limited Internet access for the next few weeks starting tomorrow. Consequently, I probably won't be able to respond to any follow-up questions you may have for a few weeks. I think I've given you a resource to keep you busy for a bit of time.