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Hearing Voices - Issue #31, or "Special Edition w/someone actually making $$$ from Alexa"

"As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product"- Jef Raskin, conceived & star

Hearing Voices

October 3 · Issue #31 · View online
This week's news about voice computing apps, delivered directly to your inbox.

“As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product”
- Jef Raskin, conceived & started Apple Macintosh project within Apple

“As far as I am concerned, you should forward this newsletter to a friend before even reading it yourself. Just kidding. But seriously.”
- Matt Hartman, at an Apple once

Hi Everyone,
In addition to our normal voice UI news, I’m including an interview I did with Nick Schwab, who is making $$$ from the Amazon Alexa Skill rewards payout program and was willing to share a bit about how the program is working for him. 
But first:
To Try:
> Stabl - podcast recommendations, every day. 
> Jovo - if you’re a premium member, you got an alert when this first launched on product hunt and I chatted with some of you about it over SMS.  Jovo is a developer tool that lets you use one code base for all voice apps across devices (e.g., Google Home, Alexa). And it’s open source, so if you’re building a new voice skill, give it a try. also covered their launch here: Jovo Promises Write Once, Run Everywhere on Voice Assistants.  
> Alexa Sounds -  List of ambient sleep sounds for Alexa, by Nick Schwab, who I interview below about the Amazon’s Alexa Skill rewards payout program. Spoiler alert: he’s making $$$ 
Amazon Is Reportedly Building Alexa Smart Specs - If you’re a premium member, you got this alert when it came out. If not, definitely check it out: “Get ready to hear the soft voice of your AI assistant cooing right into your ear, wherever you are.” 
Mic Check 1, 2, 3 - great overview by @thejerrylu on the evolution of microphone technology that underlies the voice-first revolution.

from @thejerrylu's overview on microphone tech
from @thejerrylu's overview on microphone tech
Q&A Feature: Who's Alexa paying $$$ for skills?
@NickSchwab, that’s who. He’s founder of Invoked Apps, which makes Alexa skills with > 500k monthly users collectively. I was curious about how Amazon is doing its reward payouts, so we chatted:
MFH: Thanks so much for offering to chat about your experience with amazon payments. If you’re open to it, I’d love to include a Q&A in my newsletter. I’ll include the more sensitive information in the premium membership [join Hearing Voices premium here]. 
NS: Hey Matt, my pleasure!

 You have a number of apps in the Alexa skills store. Which ones generate revenue through the amazon program vs. other ways?
NS: My company, Invoked Apps, now has 50 Skills in the Alexa Skills Store, most of which are sound loops to help people fall asleep, relax, or focus. Several of these ambient sleep sound Skills generate revenue through Amazon’s reward payout program, but none of them are generating revenue through other methods. Before the reward payout program was established, Invoked Apps tried an advertising model in partnership with voice analytics platform VoiceLabs, but the monetization attempt was quickly shut down by Amazon.

How does the Alexa payout program actually work?
NS: Amazon’s Alexa Skill rewards payout program is designed to pay Alexa developers of the top Skills in various categories each month. Amazon measures various aspects of a Skill’s performance for a calendar month, then emails qualifying Alexa developers the amounts their qualifying Skills have earned on around the 15th of the next month, followed a couple weeks later with Amazon wiring the lump sum to the developer’s bank account.

MFH: Can you share the math of how payments work?
NS: Amazon hasn’t shared exactly how their algorithm works, but after much analysis of my own payouts and some contributions of other Alexa developers, I have come to the conclusion that they likely use a ranking method where the top X performing Skills in a category receive an amount according to their position in the ranking.

For example, it appears that the top-ranking Skill in a category receives [premium members only], the 10th ranking Skill may receive around [premium members only], and the 500th ranking Skill might receive [premium members only]. Since the algorithm Amazon uses to calculate the rankings is unknown (and seemingly unable to be reversed engineered without knowing the monthly performance of every Alexa Skill), there is no sure-fire way to know if you’re going to qualify for a reward payout.

MFH: How did you get initial traction for these skills and others? Did you promote them? Amazon? Your Partners?
NS: In early November of 2016 I found my Skills becoming more than just hobbies as thousands of Alexa users began to flock to my series of ambient sleep sounds. This initial traction was entirely organic - it turned out that I scratched an itch that many Alexa users had: the struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep. After a short time, Amazon noticed the organic growth that my Skills were receiving and threw their weight behind them by featuring them on the Alexa Skill Store homepage, driving even more traffic.

MFH: Can you talk about your development process? 
NS: Testing voice-based experiences is currently a very tedious process. With Alexa Skills, the first thing you need to do is make sure Alexa is translating your programmed voice commands properly. This requires manual testing by actually speaking to a device, which is quite a time commitment for a larger Skill. Until NLP (natural language processing) technology advances to a point where it can interpret human speech at essentially 100% accuracy, I believe the best Skill experiences will come from developers who take the time to manually test their Skills.

Once you’ve established that Alexa can accurately (and consistently) interpret the voice commands you’ve built your Skill to support, you can develop automated testing plans to validate the business logic of your Skill in a nearly identical way you would write unit tests for an API. If you want to be among the small handful of Skills with over 100 reviews and averaging over a 4 star rating, plan on dedicating just as much time to testing your Skill as you did building it.

MFH: Thanks so much for sharing your process and what you’ve learned about Amazon Alexa’s Skill rewards payout program. Are there any links you’d like to promote in the newsletter?
NS: You’re welcome! Would be great if you could promote this list of ambient sleep sounds for Alexa:
And finally, a new section: Hiring: - If you’re an voice-focused developer in SF, take a look at their jobs page. It’s led by the team that built, to make brands accessible and valuable in a voice-first world.
> Are you hiring voice-first developers? Reply to this email with any job listings.
As was “subtly” hinted at throughout this newsletter, you can now join hearing voice premium to get timely alerts on voice news, and to chat with Matt about topics in voice UI. Limited to the first 130 people. Subscribe here:
Thanks for reading and have a great week!
- Matt
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