How Associations Are Getting to Know Alexa

Voice-recognition devices are growing in popularity and offer opportunities for associations to engage members at home. Here’s how associations are experimenting with the apps that bring Alexa and other similar technologies to life.

One of the big topics at last week’s ASAE Technology Conference & Expo was artificial intelligence, including its already realized potential for smart speakers and voice recognition services. You probably know them best as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri.

This technology is going mainstream at a jaw-dropping rate. A September survey by reported that 57.8 million U.S. consumers now own at least one smart speaker. That represents 23 percent of American adults and reflects 22 percent growth in just the eight months since the previous survey was conducted in January.

Last year, I speculated about the possible uses of smart speakers for association membership work. Well, as it turns out, we’re already here.

Need proof? Just download the Amazon Alexa “skill” (a voice-driven capability, like an app) from the California Associations of Realtors, and you’ll get CAR’s latest member bulletin. Or ask Alexa for an Alabama Rural Water Association training, and she’ll read you the upcoming schedule of classes.

Layla Masri, president and cofounder of Bean Creative, a digital agency that works with associations, has seen a healthy uptick in questions related to designing and developing voice-enabled apps. So far, she’s worked with two clients to develop Amazon skills that use information and data contained on a website or app. While this may seem daunting, Masri says she went into these projects with an experimental mindset.

“When we first dipped our toe into the water, it seemed like the project would be a ton of work,” Masri says. “But our very first skill was developed in just a few days with little to no programming experience.”

The key was to start small. One of the first voice-enabled apps her team created is Association Stats, which generates brief answers to questions about membership organizations. Though simple, it helped the team gain confidence in developing voice-enabled apps. Here’s what they’ve learned so far.

Develop a manageable prototype. No matter the project’s goal, Masri says, you need to keep it manageable at the start. Her team developed Associations Stats for one specific device —Amazon’s Alexa—and one specific purpose. They started here because fact generators and question-and-answer apps are already popular ways to use smart speakers. And often developers have paved the way with code and programming examples shared on developer forums, like Amazon’s Voice Developer and Google’s Actions page.

“There’s a lot of prebaked options and tutorials, and for us, it was somewhat of a step-by-step process,” Masri says. “You might want to start there too, especially if it’s a proof of concept or minimum viable product to show off.”

Consider user experience. Voice-enabled technology is still in the nascent stages of development, which means it’s clunky to use. I use a voice-enabled smart speaker to operate lights in my home, and on many occasions, my command has been misunderstood or I phrased it incorrectly, leaving me in the dark.

Success requires that app developers think and talk like humans do. Complex or lengthy commands are a sure bet for failure, Masri says. She recommends keeping commands and questions to a few words and allowing for the variety of words and phrases that people use. “The last thing you want is someone screaming at Alexa because she doesn’t understand,” Masri says.

Add a layer of fun. During a client content audit, Masri discovered that the organization’s magazine had published a bunch of dad jokes. This prompted an idea: Instead of designing a complex app, she created an easy-to-use joke generator that’s popular with both members and nonmembers.

“The biggest takeaway we have so far is that you really have to think broadly about the usability of the technology and what content you have that’s engaging and ready to use,” she says.

(seewhatmitchsee/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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