Alexa Skills are the best (and worst) part of using Amazon Alexa
Amazon is still leading the charge in the AI assistant race in many ways. Compared to the closest competing assistants from Google and Apple, Alexa is offered on the largest line of Amazon smart home speakers and other smart home products.
Amazon Alexa Skills are another key feature that helps Alexa stand out from the competition. Amazon offers its Alexa Skills Kit to developers, giving them the ability to incorporate their products or services into the Alexa ecosystem. These Alexa Skills have the potential to add great value for consumers — but only if they work as advertised.
When it works, it's amazing…
I'll start by giving Amazon and Alexa Skills credit where credit is due because it's a genuinely amazing experience to find a Skill that just works.
In my experience, the most reliable Alexa Skills are offered by popular news media outlets and music streaming services — the ones you'd typically see advertised right on the Amazon Echo packaging such as Spotify and Amazon Music. I've also had some lighthearted laughs with the more silly and fun skills that tell jokes, play quizzes, or do other weird stuff that's great for entertaining or surprising friends.
These are also the lowest stake skills and therefore get the most leeway in terms of bugginess— I can still play a specific track or playlist from Spotify using my phone, and my day isn't going to be ruined if a quiz app doesn't hear my response properly.
When a skill doesn't work, it's a real pain in the ass
it's when you go beyond those silly apps and start looking into Skills that, in theory, seem like they'd be pretty useful to incorporate into your daily life that things start to go off the rails.
An Alexa Skill, by design, is supposed to make things easier by letting you control more things using some simple voice command. When these commands don't work, or are missing some pretty obvious features, a Skill can quickly go from being somewhat useful to pull-out-your-hair frustrating.
The worst offenders seem to actually be some of the most popular smart home brands have embarrassing average user ratings — Ring averages about two stars, same with SmartThings, and Philips Hue is just marginally better at two and a half stars.
Reading through the reviews, you find stories of updates completely ruining the usefulness of certain features, or users begging for critical features to be added year after year. These are often the most popular skills and you can tell that based on the number of user reviews. It's granted that some of the bad reviews could be chalked up to user error during set up or unrealistic expectations, but I've dealt with enough frustrating skills to generally commiserate with most one-star reviews.
Unlike Google or Apple, who have been strategically adding smart home product support for their smart assistants at a slow but steady rate, Amazon's Skill strategy lacks the curation and quality control that most average consumers would probably expect. As one of my co-workers explained in a recent meeting, Alexa Skills still feel like the Wild West of home automation — for better or worse.
You can go your own way
One important caveat that I should mention is that I live in Canada. That means some skills simply aren't available for me unless the Skill developer has made them available for Canadian English in the language settings. It feels like a pretty arbitrary setting that ultimately locks me out from using some skills.
Yet Amazon still manages to provide users like me tools for creating my own custom skills. Before researching this article, I was not familiar with Alexa Skill Blueprints — there's no mention of them in the Alexa app or when you're looking up different skills on Amazon.
That's likely because Blueprints are entirely separate from Skills and let you create custom skills exclusively for your household. But when you're struggling with a Skill for tracking workouts, or finding a fun quiz to play with your family, or looking for fun and personalized ways to have fun with Alexa it would be nice to know that you can, in fact, make your own instead of relying on Amazon's collection of often janky Skills.
And frankly, until Amazon does a better job of curating their Skills and ensuring that the most popular ones retain their functionality, you might get the best results from building your own.
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Marc Lagace was an Apps and Games Editor at Android Central between 2016 and 2020. You can reach out to him on Twitter [@spacelagace.