Over the past few months, HomeAdvisor’s application team has been expanding beyond our Android and Apple apps and exploring wearables, television, and the internet of things. HomeAdvisor strives to be at the forefront of the latest technology and consumer preferences. As the adoption rate of voice command surges, HomeAdvisor’s application team has turned its attention to voice interaction technology. In fact, HomeAdvisor was the first home services company to release an Apple Watch application that allows homeowners to easily find pre-screened and approved service professionals using only their voice.
Today, HomeAdvisor marks another first for the home services space with the launch of an Alexa skill for the Amazon Echo. Just like our Watch application, the Alexa skill leverages our patent pending Instant Connect technology to connect homeowners with more than 100,000 service professionals. Our new Alexa skill finds available service professionals, calls out to them, and connects the service professional and the homeowner over the phone. It’s a seamless experience that usually takes less than a minute and cuts out the back and forth phone tag, allowing a homeowner to speak directly with a service professional.
This new HomeAdvisor skill is available today to Amazon Echo users, and joins a growing list of Alexa skills to help make life easier. We believe this new skill combined with our Instant Connect platform will provide another great way for homeowners to instantly connect with service professionals. In this post we’ll discuss how the skill works and our overall experience working with the Alexa platform.
How It Works
As with all new skills, users will first need to enable the HomeAdvisor skill using the Alexa companion app. Once enabled, Alexa skills are initiated with voice commands, so a homeowner begins the HomeAdvisor skill by asking HomeAdvisor to find a service professional for any type of project. If the user’s project type falls within HomeAdvisor’s expertise, the user is then asked for his or her zip code and telephone number. The zip code is required in order to match the homeowner to service professionals that serve their location, and the phone number is required so that the service professional can be connected to the homeowner.
After the necessary information is collected, the Instant Connect process begins. Telephone calls are initiated to a list of pre-screened and approved service professionals who are available in the area and are qualified to serve the project. When a service professional accepts the call, we call out to the homeowner via the phone number provided in the first steps of the skill. The homeowner’s phone rings, the homeowner accepts the call, and the service professional and homeowner are connected and free to discuss the logistics of the project.
An added benefit of the skill is the content that the homeowner receives in the companion app. While the Instant Connect process runs in the background, the homeowner can access a list of additional available service professionals in the app. Using the companion app, the homeowner can browse a directory of service professionals who are qualified for the job, read consumer reviews, and see the service professional’s contact information.
Throughout the course of the voice interaction, the homeowner can ask for help, repeat a step, or cancel the request. If the homeowner asks for help, Alexa responds with an explanation of how the skills works; if the homeowner says “repeat”, the Alexa repeats the previous question; and if the homeowner says any variation of cancel or stop, the skill shuts down.
Building New Alexa Skills
Alexa handles all of the natural language voice processing, parsing the words the user spoke and returning those words as text and numbers. As part of the ASK, developers can upload a list of sample words and phrases a user might say while using the skill. Those examples help feed the Amazon processor and improve the voice recognition capabilities. For example in the HomeAdvisor skill, a user might be likely to say “Maid Service”. Including this phrase in the terms for the skill allows the skill to recognize the first word in the phrase as “maid” as opposed to the more common, “made”. The system therefore starts from a more informed point through the inclusion of these common phrases.
Challenges of Working with the ASK
While the majority of the experience working with the ASK was positive, the team ran into a few problems. Broadly speaking, Alexa skills are designed to be request / response applications and the skill shuts down after a specified time of inactivity. This timeout created complications for the HomeAdvisor skill due to the asynchronous nature of Instant Connect. We ended up dropping an originally planned feature to announce the pros name when we initiate calling to the homeowner.
Another issue arose when working with phone numbers. The skill requires the homeowner to enter a 10 digit phone number, but the ASK does not support numbers that large. If the user relays a number that is too large, the ASK does not handle the entry as an unknown number. Instead, the system overflows and registers a seemingly arbitrary phone number. To overcome this problem, the team altered the experience and split the phone number into two sections: a 3 digit area code and the remaining 7 digit phone number. While this solution works for the time being, saying a phone number in two parts is not natural for a user.
Though a few challenges arose while working with the ASK, the Alexa team at Amazon remained in close communication offering valuable advice and problem resolution. Amazon’s team took note of the HomeAdvisor workarounds and both an extended timeout on user activity and a new datatype that allows for a bigger number are on Amazon’s radar.
Voice command platforms are growing in usage and the HomeAdvisor team continues to deliver quality products to meet that demand. The existing infrastructure for AWS provides powerful and intuitive tools for creating Alexa skills. The combination of the easy to use Amazon ASK and the innovation of the HomeAdvisor app team allowed for a swift and successful launch of the HomeAdvisor Alexa skill. With this release HomeAdvisor has yet again solidified its position at the forefront of smart home technology. We hope you’ll give the new Alexa skill a try, and as always we look forward to hearing feedback.