What is an Alexa Skill?

If you’re looking to know what an Alexa Skill is, you’ve come to the right place. At Smart Home Explained, you’ll find Alexa Skills mentioned quite a lot. Between the weekly “Keeping Up With Alexa” newsletter and the Skill Spotlight features, I spend a bunch of time exploring the Alexa Skill Store. 

But while a skill in and of itself is easy to explain, it’s also important to consider the overall inner workings of an Alexa Skill, like the types and categories, to fully understand the term and how to get the most out of Alexa. So with that in mind, let’s get started. 

Comparing Alexa Skills to Smartphone Apps

To put it simply, an Alexa Skill is a voice-driven feature on your Alexa device. A skill is added to Alexa-enabled devices, like an Echo, to help you get more out of both the device itself and Amazon’s Voice Assistant.

This definition is pretty abstract, though. Instead, it’s easier to consider the analogy of comparing Alexa to Smartphones. 

On Smartphones, you can think of two different components:

  • The Smartphone itself, like an iPhone
  • The Applications, or “Apps” as it’s commonly referred to, like Angry Birds and Facebook

The Smartphone is the overall device. An App is a piece of software that adds features to the device. 

What makes Apps so powerful and crucial to the Smartphone experience is that Apps don’t have to be made by the Smartphone company itself, like Apple. Instead, Apps are made by millions of third-party developers around the world. Essentially, anyone with an idea can create their own App and distribute it to the millions of iPhone users out there. This ability also happens to be one of the biggest reasons why the iPhone is so popular. According to Apple, there’s an app for that.

You can think of Amazon and Alexa Skills much in the same way. Just think of Alexa Skills as Apps, and Alexa herself as the iPhone. With Alexa Skills, Amazon attempts to have Apps for Alexa. And just like with Smartphones, Alexa Skills can be created by third-parties and introduce all sorts of different features to Alexa. Just the other week, I highlighted Alexa Skills that turn Alexa into a Metronome.

How To Use Alexa Skills

Using an Alexa Skill is really easy. So easy that you’ve likely used one already and didn’t realize it.

If you’ve ever used the phrase “Alexa, ask…” or “Alexa, open…” then you’ve used an Alexa Skill. And if you have any smart devices, like Smart Lights or Smart Plugs, you’re also using Alexa Skills—just in a slightly different way.

To use an Alexa Skill directly, you first need to know about something that sounds more technical than it really is: Invocation Name. The Invocation Name is the  Alexa Skill name itself. You use this name to let Alexa know you want to use or open a specific Alexa Skill.

All Alexa Skills support one important command that you can rely on: “Alexa, open <Invocation Name>”

After you give Alexa this command, a few things happen:

  1. The Alexa Skill you mention is enabled for your account.
  2. The skill starts up with Alexa telling you a description of the skill and how to use it, which is supplied by the Alexa Skill creator.

Other Alexa Skills, like Smart Home Skills, are used when you link Alexa with Smart Home brands. Then, when you say something like, “Alexa, turn on the light,” Alexa uses the Alexa Skill that can control your light.

Now with the definition out of the way, let’s cover the most common questions users have about Alexa Skills.

How can I find new Alexa Skills?

This is surprisingly a tough question to answer. Alexa has blown up with skills over the years, and the marketplace is ever growing day-by-day. There are so many at this point that it’s impossible to really find skills easily. In fact, finding new and useful Alexa Skills is a huge problem for Amazon these days. This is why you’ll see lots of advertisements on Amazon devices that say something like “try this command” or “ask this command.”  

That said, you do have a few ways to find new skills. If you’re curious to browse the existing skills, give the Alexa Skill Store a try. Fair warning, finding really good skills here is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Another good route: this blog! Within my weekly newsletter, I include new and newly-promoted Alexa Skills for you to try out. If you want this post in your inbox, sign up here

How do I enable or disable Alexa Skills?

Sometimes you may need to adjust your Alexa Skills by disabling one and enabling another. Or you may just want to see what sort of Alexa Skills you even have.

Unfortunately, managing your Alexa Skills isn’t possible via your Alexa-enabled device directly. Instead, you can manage your Alexa Skills via going to Amazon.com, but  the better way to do so is by using the Alexa App. 

To use the Alexa App:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Skills & Games
  3. Tap Your Skills
  4. Tap Enabled
Alexa Skills list
Alexa Skills list

Now you can scroll through a list of skills you’ve enabled on your account. If you click one of these skills, you’ll find the developer description and a big “Disable Skill” button.

Alexa Skill Detail Page
Alexa Skill Detail Page

By clicking that button, you disable the skill, which removes all of its data from your account and frees up the Invocation Name that the skill uses, like “open my own metronome” which you can see in the screenshot above.

What are the different types of Alexa Skills?

While using Alexa, you can run into a few different kinds of Alexa Skills. All of these skills are still developed by third-parties. The main difference between these types is how you access them. If you’re looking for the raw info, check Amazon’s developer page. Let’s go through a few:

Flash Briefing

If you have ever used the command “Alexa, tell me the news” then you have used the feature called Flash Briefing. Amazon lets third-party creators make Alexa Skills that add more news to your Flash Briefing updates from Alexa. The idea here is you can get news updates on a huge range of topics, from general politics to more niche industries like Smart Home tech (my favorite).

Blueprints

Blueprints are normal Alexa Skills. The main difference is Amazon makes it really easy to make these types of skills. The benefit is you can quickly create your own custom features with Alexa. I went through the steps to create one in a recent newsletter.

Smart Home

Smart Home Alexa Skills also exist, but work slightly differently than your normal Alexa Skill. The main difference is how you “open” the skill. For these, Alexa understands the skill you’re referring to by the smart device’s name. For example, when you ask Alexa to turn on your lights, Alexa looks at your Smart Light, see’s the brand, and starts that brand’s Alexa Skill. So you don’t need to call out the skill name in this case.

Music & Video

Amazon also allows creators to make Alexa Skills that play music and videos. These behave a bit differently, as well. The main benefit is you can change Alexa’s default behavior to choose these sort of Alexa Skills.

For example, I tell Amazon to use Spotify’s Alexa Skill instead of Amazon Music when I ask to play a song. That way, I don’t have to always say something like “Alexa, play X music on Spotify.” Alexa just knows that I want Spotify as my default.

Do Alexa Skills cost money?

Alexa Skills are free to enable, but they can have what’s called “In-Skill” purchasing. Some have this while others don’t. Essentially, Alexa Skills can upsell you and charge your Amazon account for added features, like improved sound quality or more playing options in a game. Fortunately, Skills can’t charge you automatically. You have to confirm with Alexa before charges can happen.

Payment can be really tricky, too, in Kid Skills. Luckily, the skill page lets you know if an Alexa Skill does have these upsell options embedded. On the skill page, look for the phrase “In-Skill Purchases Available” near the skill icon.

Alexa Skill Icon with In-Skill Purchasing

Some Alexa Skills also require paid subscriptions to be ad free. Like Spotify, which requires a premium subscription in order to remove ads from their Alexa Skill.

What are Alexa Kid Skills?

Alexa Kid Skills are Alexa Skills that are specifically targeted to children. These skills require explicit permission to enable. Parents can also use Amazon FreeTime and a few other kid features in combination with Kid Skills. You can find out more info from Amazon.

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