Amazon Alexa Skills: Give your Echo powerful new features or create your own

From creating a bedtime story to helping your kids with their homework, Alexa Skills let you add to the smart speaker's already formidable armoury.

Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant is a very clever piece of kit. It’s a voice assistant that lives inside the company’s Echo range of products, ready to answer your questions, set timers and control other connected devices in your smart home.

But you can make it even more clever by adding or creating ‘skills’. These apps for your Amazon Echo speaker can read you the news, find you recipes or even play a game with you. You can also create your own skills, whether that’s writing a bedtime story for your children or setting up a series of custom questions and answers to help the babysitter when you’re out.

Read on to find out what skills there are, how you access them and how they can help you get the most from your Amazon Echo smart speaker.

[Read more: What is a smart home?]

What is Amazon Alexa?

Alexa is the name Amazon gives to its artificial intelligence-powered smart speaker. Like Apple’s Siri, Google's Assistant or Microsoft's Cortana, Alexa can answer your queries on all kinds of subjects, control your smart home appliances and devices like thermostats and lighting, and set timers, reminders and calendar events.

What are Amazon Alexa Skills?

Skills are effectively apps for your Echo smart speaker. If you want the news or weather forecast read to you every morning, for instance, or if there’s a game you enjoy playing, just speak a key phrase and Alexa will obey your request.

You can also create your own skills using Amazon Skill Blueprints, an online tool that lets you create custom questions and answers for Alexa. This could be useful for creating custom answers to questions your babysitter might ask, or for creating revision cards for your child.

What are Amazon Alexa Blueprints?

Alexa Blueprints is a tool that lets you create your own questions and answers for Alexa. For example, a babysitter could ask “Alexa, where are the nappies?” and hear your custom reply: “They’re in the bathroom cupboard under the sink.”

Other examples include creating your own bedtime story. You can write the story into Blueprints and even add your own sound effects and then when the children ask for a bedtime story, it will read what you’ve written aloud.

These Blueprints are only applied to your Alexa assistant, so don’t worry about anyone else finding out where you keep the nappies. If you create one that you’re really proud of though, you can choose to share them with others.

How do I use Amazon Alexa Blueprints?

First, head to blueprints.amazon.co.uk. Once there you’ll be presented with an easy set of instructions on how to create your very first set of responses.

Amazon has already created a huge range of helpful templates for you to start with including:

Custom Q&A – Customise Alexa’s responses to your questions

Babysitter – Help the babysitter find things. Remember steps, and get important info

Chore chart – Schedule weekly chores for your entire household

Roast – Roast your friends and family with light-hearted jokes

Fairy Tale – Create an interactive prince or princess-themed tale

Quiz – Challenge your friends with open-ended questions

Flashcards – Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice

Once you’ve decided what you want to create, simply follow the instructions, writing down the questions you think people are likely to ask: you can write multiple versions if you think people might phrase their questions differently

Underneath that you type the answers that you want Alexa to say back. That could range from telling someone where to find something or dishing out housework for the kids.

You can even create quizzes by telling Alexa the question followed by the answer that it should hear back. This could be perfect for helping kids revise for exams or creating a fun quiz for the family.

Once you have created your Skill, press the Create Skill button in the top right-hand corner of the screen and it will send it to all your Alexa-enabled speakers.

Watch this video tutorial on how to create your own trivia game using Skill Blueprints:

What are the best Amazon Alexa Skills?

It depends on how you use Alexa, of course. But we particularly like the following.

Amazon​ Story Time

If you want to send the little ones off to sleep or just keep them entertained for a few minutes, this is a must. It prompts Alexa to read out a short story from the Amazon Rapids app library and Audible. Stories are suitable for kids aged 5-12. To enable it, just say, “Alexa, open Amazon Storytime”. Then it’s a simple case of saying, “Alexa, ask Amazon Storytime to read me a story”.

Animal Sounds

Quicker and easier than a trip to the zoo, this skill plays the sounds of 30 animals, from household cats and dogs to more exotic fare like leopards, bears, elephants and sea lions. To enable it, say, “Alexa, open Animal Sounds”.

BBC News

Don’t have time to read the news? This skill reads out the top headlines while you get on with your day. To enable it, say, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?”

Big Sky

This weather skill will tell you if you need to pack a brolly. You can ask for the weather forecast now or for some time in the future (for the commute home, for example), or just ask it for a weather fact. To enable it, say, “Alexa, start Big Sky”.

Sleep Sounds

Background noise is great to drift off to, and this skill packs a ton, including rain. You can ask Alexa to switch it off in 20 minutes too, so it won’t risk waking you up once you've nodded off. To enable it, say, “Alexa, open Sleep Sounds”.

Nest Thermostat

This skill lets you adjust the heating on your Nest thermostat. You can be specific too – adjust it by as many degrees as you want. To enable it, you have to install it via the Alexa app and link your account.

Hive

If you're a Hive user, this skill lets you adjust the temperature without taking out your phone. But it can also control other Hive smart devices, like power sockets and lighting. To enable it, you’ll have to install it via the Alexa app and link your account.

Philips Hue

Hue is the best smart lighting system around. Using this skill, you can adjust your lighting to a very specific degree (“dim the lights by five per cent”, for example). The only downside? It can’t change the colour of the bulbs - not yet, anyway. To enable it, you’ll have to install it via the Alexa app and link your account.

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