Amazon Alexa: Moving from quantity to quality with 3rd Party Skills

July 17, 2021

By Ahmed Bouzid (Founder & CEO at Witlingo)

Someone recently asked me: Ahmed, are you for Alexa or against Alexa?

They were confused, since they read me several times sing the praises of Alexa and the team behind it, and then, once in a while, heap heavy criticism (even scorn) upon it and the team behind it.

The short answer: I am for Alexa.

So why do I heap criticism?

I do whenever I get the chance because it really bothers me when things that could be solved and are making many, many users miserable remain un-fixed for years! That, as they say, burns my arse.

I remember back in early 2015 having a running argument with a director at Alexa (a man who had worked on building up the Windows mobile app store and who had moved on, given the results) asserting that the right strategy was to move fast and let people build skills.

My point to him: these coders will surely deploy crap, and lots and lots of it — we have seen this movie before with IVR telephony, and Alexa’s brand will surely be tarnished as a result.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Let’s be cowboys!’ He was, as anyone who was there would remember, repeating the gospel according to Jeff.

Jeff Bezos and the Fire Phone team at the time were just emerging from the ashes of a still smoldering failure (this was in the summer of 2014) that was directly the result of a deadly one-two combination of: ‘Don’t argue with the boss, for he is determined to have his way, no matter what,’ and ‘Let’s move fast, fast, fast, because the boss wants us to move fast, fast, fast.’

What’s saved Alexa is that the boss, perhaps stung a bit by the Fire Phone debacle (but who knows, really), this time around took a couple of steps back and listened to people who knew what they were talking about.

If only he had also dropped the move fast, fast, fast, part.

(Note: The vast majority of those brilliant people who launched the Echo in 2014-15 left very quickly left after that, replaced by cautious and compliant soldiers. Perhaps that is why almost no real progress has been made as far as the conversational interface is concerned. It’s basically what was delivered in 2014.)

Imagine if instead of 6 years of “build fast, no matter the quality,” the Alexa team had patiently been building with a real focus on the customer experience? Imagine the lessons learned since then and as a result the great skills that would have been deployed. If it were not a first world problem, one would not be altogether amiss calling it tragic!

But, as they say, better late than never — and so, today, I want to give some kudos to the Alexa team.

From several interactions I’ve had with them in the last few weeks, it is clear that they are moving away from the initial unwise strategy of ‘more skills, more, more, more — we want numbers, numbers, numbers — look at us, we have lots of skills’ — to one where they seek out potentially good skills and patiently help the people behind them make them be more usable and deliver value. Even better: once they get the skills to a certain level of performance, they help you highlight your work.

This is a very good thing, in my opinion.

Let’s hope they stick to it and play the long game.

PS: I have not seen a similar push from the Google people. Over there, it feels like things have gone sideways right now.

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