Alexa skills on the Echo Show are a dumpster fire - it's time Amazon fixed that

Alexa is handing the Smart Display advantage to Google

Alexa skills are a dumpster fire

We need to talk about Alexa skills. Specifically, how absolutely awful most of them are. It’s always been that way, and for a couple of years the issue has flown under the radar – but since I became an Amazon Echo Show owner it’s become all too apparent.

Some stats we reported on earlier this month really tell the story: just 13.7% of smart speaker users use apps or skills – mostly because the discoverability is so poor. And that’s understandable, as voice skills really aren’t that necessary for a great experience. But Amazon has neglected the skills aspect of its screen-toting speakers the Echo Spot and Echo Show – and they’re suffering because of it.

Let’s look at some basic gripes. Firstly, there’s no separation of skills for Show/Spot within the Alexa skills store itself. This makes it mind-blowingly difficult to work out what has been optimised for Show and what has not.

It's mind-blowingly difficult to work out what has been optimised for Show

If you ask your Echo Show for skills there’s a 'Best on Screen' section – which is a better discoverability method – but the listing of the top 10 skills is revealing. Animal Sounds is the third most popular skill, with Ryanair also in the list.

Can we really not find 10 AAA- brand skills for this innovative device? It feels like Amazon wanted something to organically happen – but developers are not getting on board.

And this feeds into main problem around quality of apps: many are good on paper but then the execution is fatally flawed. BBC Good Food has been recently overhauled – but it’s still a fairly terrible experience. It reminds me of the early days of Windows 8, which was bereft of big-name apps, and the ones that arrived on the platform were simplistic, buggy and rarely updated. Microsoft never really addressed this problem.

Alexa Skills are dumpster fire - and the Echo Show is suffering most

There are far too many examples of poorly executed skills. BBC Good Food requires a painful amount of vocal input to find recipes – a quick ask for spaghetti bolognese, for example, will return three options. You then choose one, despite having no information on the difference, and Alexa will then read out the ingredients. Some recipes have stylised cards, which actually works fine, but some will just send you a link to the recipe on your phone – utterly pointless.

Recipedia is actually a lot better, but its 2.5 star user rating tells you how effective that is.

National Rail – forgive me a UK indulgence – is one such skill that’s actually fantastic. Set up your commute route and it can tell you your next train times. But my station is “London Bridge”, which totally confuses it – simply giving options for “Bridge Station in London”. Infuriating.

And that’s the best of a poor selection. There’s plenty of fish tank and fireplace skills you can use – and a bunch of games, but they're often a complete let-down. And it makes it really hard to recommend Echo Show - not because the hardware is bad – but beyond looking at cameras – there’s little extra on offer.

But you can see why. Not only is Echo Show/Spot too niche to really warrant the attention of development houses, there’s little economy in creating Alexa skills.

Amazon needs to re-think its Alexa skills platform. As a commerce powerhouse, it really should be better at building a system that incentives developers and adds value for users. It’s done that time and again with its shopping, video and premium services. It’s time to give Alexa functionality the respect it deserves.

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