The Botcast VUX Series ~ All Things Alexa with Craig Pugsley

Host: Lucy Olivia Hopkins, Digital Marketing Manager, We Build Bots

Guest: Craig Pugsley, Director & Creative Lead, Studio Flow


Lucy Hopkins: Hi Craig. How are you?

Craig Pugsley: I’m good thanks. How are you?

LH: Yes, I’m good thank you. Thanks for coming on The Botcast!

CP: It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

LH: You’re very welcome. So, I know you’ve just got back from IFA 2018 in Berlin. How was that?

CP: Oh, it’s crazy. It was my first time going to any of these big conferences. I haven’t been to CES either. And usually I’m always behind the stand as well selling some products or demoing some features or whatever. But this time I got an opportunity to go to one of these big shows and actually be a punter walking round. It’s just insane. You had halls that were full of fridges and vacuum cleaners and then right next door to them you had these crazy robots. AI powered, autonomous, home help robots that were carrying drinks around and could talk to you.

LH: No way.

CP: Yes. It’s a bit of a Mecca for any tech enthusiastic I think, going to see CES or IFA. And it really felt like I’d be making a bit of a pilgrimage – not to push the religious analogy too far, but it felt like it was a, kind of, coming home going there. Crazy.

LH: That’s so cool. It sounds epic.

CP: Yes, it was. And it’s so busy as well. It had thousands and thousands of people there all vying to see the new product that’s just been released or to get the shots that they need for their press stuff. Actually, one thing that was really weird is that it was open to the public as well.

LH: Wow.

CP: Yes. One minute you could be talking to the CEO of Vodafone and the next minute you’re talking to Henrick from Berlin just down the road who just happens to be really into the latest – I don’t know, vacuum cleaner or whatever.

LH: That’s really nice to have that mix.

CP: Yes, really good. Really interesting. It brings a really interesting dynamic to the whole event.

LH: Yes. What was the most interesting thing that you saw there?

CP: Oh, wow. Wellness is a big topic this year. So, there’s lots of devices for helping people track their wellness or advise them on ways of keeping more healthy and fit and nutritionally balanced. Segway were there with some really interesting new platforms for their urban mobility stuff.

LH: That’s cool.

CP: There was a couple of fridges there that were quite interesting, and I know I probably shouldn’t say that, it’s not very geeky, is it? But there was some really interesting new concepts for end to end food – like cooking basically. So, the idea of a connected fridge is fairly old and that’s been around for years. But taking it a step further in the food delivery chain and seeing what ingredients are in the fridge, automatically calling out to a grocery delivery service to get that food in the fridge. And then this one product providing a way for the consumer to cook that food based on the food that they’ve got in their fridge as well and providing recipes and the voice interaction that is included there. So, the whole thing was really interesting.

LH: Wow, that’s amazing. I would actually love one of those in my life.

CP: Yes, totally.

LH: That would be a game changer.

CP: Yes, any element that means you don’t have to think too hard about something like that is a winner, right? Because there’s times when I do want to cook and times when I don’t, and when I don’t I just want something like that to – not necessarily do it for me, but just to take all the hassle out, you know? More time for drinking wine, right?

LH: Yes, exactly. It’s all about convenience, isn’t it? I would love that. That’s so cool. Right, so let’s get on to you a little bit then. So, I know that before you became the Director and Creative Lead at Studio Flow, you were the Principal UX Designer at Just Eat, is that right?

CP: That’s right, yes. So, I led the creative direction for Just Eat’s product research team.

LH: Very cool. I heard that you created the UK’s first e-commerce Alexa skill?

CP: Yes, we did.

LH: Tell us more...

CP: So, the way that we work in product research was that we were very lean and iterative. We ran lots of different experiments. We were doing drone delivery one week, the next week we were doing all kinds of crazy stuff.

One of the experiments that we ran was around conversational interfaces and ways for people to order food. A bit like the telephone and ringing the restaurant up but where the service would know who you are and what your orders were and you could make amends to it really quickly, and it’s really about driving that convenience factor.

So, we ran all these different experiments and Alexa or voice interface ordering was by far one of the most successful experiments that we ran. So yes, a long story short, we developed a very strong relationship with Amazon. We were given one of the first Echo devices in the UK and that gave us an opportunity to just explore what was possible on the device and do loads and loads of research on what the best mechanism for ordering would be. And then yes, when it launched we were there on day one with a skill that enabled users to order food with their voice.

LH: That’s awesome.

CP: Yes. It was a really, really eye-opening experience, not just because it was the first voice interface that, you know, I’d designed for. It was also a whole brand-new product category that was coming to the market and you could tell that because it had been so successful in the US and Amazon had iterated them a product and on Alexa herself in the US. Bringing it to the UK was, you know, in some respects proven. The technology was proven in the US. But in some ways because of the cultural implications of voice, interfaces were a bit of a grey area, bit of an unknown.

So, I think even Amazon were a bit – not hesitant, that’s the wrong word, but Amazon were super interested in what would work really well with the UK consumers. And, you know, as it turns out, the UK loves a takeaway and the UK loves convenience, almost disproportionately so compared to other countries. So, having a skill for Alexa when they launched felt like a no brainer really.

LH: Yes, definitely. So, being in voice from such an initial stage you must have learnt so much in such a short period of time because obviously it was so new and, like you said, there were so many grey areas. What do you think the biggest roadblocks were initially with developing voice?

The biggest roadblocks that we encounter now are pretty much the same as they were before and they’re really around discoverability and making sure that you’re building something that’s fit for purpose.Craig Pugsley

CP: I think it’s still really early days. Alexa’s only been out in the States for four or five years and in the UK for a couple. The biggest roadblocks that we encounter now are pretty much the same as they were before and they’re really around discoverability and making sure that you’re building something that’s fit for purpose as well. In Studio Flow, when we work with clients on bringing voice experiences to their existing platforms, one of the first questions we ask is what do your consumers really want from your product? What’s your real value? Because typically that’s the thing you convert into a voice experience, the one or two things that people do 90% of the time.

So, you know, for train ticket ordering, it would be checking whether the trains were on time and reordering a ticket. For food, it’s not about going in there and saying oh, I’ll have a number 15 Chicken Chow Mein with side order of – not only is that a complicated problem for a voice experience technically, it’s also a complicated problem from a design perspective getting the Alexa platform to understand all those different inputs and ask the right questions at the right time. But it’s also not the best use of a voice experience at this stage anyway with the technology that we have right now.

So, it’s really about building the right thing for the platform. So, that and discoverability, that’s the other big roadblock right now. People are not realising that either there is a skill that they can use to do what they want to do, or that the actual skill itself has the features that it does. Because obviously with an iOS app you’ve got the App Store where you can go in and browse and you can search and you’ve got a product page. Amazon have that to a degree with Alexa skills, but most people enable a skill just by asking for something. And Alexa will say to them oh, I’ve got something that can do that, so you don’t see any of that product information. And then once you’re in the skill, you know, you’ve got the help intent that you can ask. You can say what can you do and it will tell you. But by and large you’re filtered down a flow and unless the flow itself tells you what’s possible with the skill you don’t really know. So yes, discoverability is the other big roadblock and there are ways of mitigating around that. We’ve done lots of work with clients on making sure their customers are aware of what their skills can do but that’s still a big issue.

LH: Do you know what? You’re so right. Discoverability, I can imagine, is one of the biggest roadblocks. It’ll be really interesting actually to see what companies like Amazon will do about that and how they will make it more accessible for people to find these skills.

CP: Yes. I think the discoverability of the skill side is ok – all the platforms are doing this thing called invocation-less intent linking so you won’t have to ask for the Just Eat skill. You’ll be able to ask for a pizza and the system will work out the skill. So, I think that side’s fairly solvable.

The one that’s really interesting for me is this, kind of, idea of multi-modal experiences. And that sounds like a grand term, but what I basically mean is mixed voice and visual experiences. So, something like Google Assist is a classic example - it changes its shape based on the way the user’s interacting with it and it will change action as well. So, you could ask Just Eat potentially for what restaurants are open on your watch and it would tell you via voice. You could then carry on that discussion to your car and you could use your Android auto visual display to show a list of restaurants. You could choose one and then by the time you’ve driven to where you want to go, you could then type the remaining conversation interacting with that Just Eat action on your Google Assistant phone. So, you’ve got touch, type and text but you’re changing between voice and visual interaction depending on the mode and what you’re doing and what you feel most comfortable doing at the time.

LH: Absolutely.

CP: I think that’s where everyone’s going to go.

LH: Yes, I think you’re right. I think multimodal will be a big game changer. It was something I was actually talking to Charlie Cadbury about, the CEO of Say It Now, the other day. I think it’s just about fully integrating into your whole life, isn’t it?

CP: Absolutely. And these devices are becoming more ambient, obviously the price points are going down. You know, Google releasing the Home Hub a few weeks ago. That’s really a convergence device. That does so much and if you’re an Android user, your entire ecosystem now is surfaced and accessible through that one device. And then you’ve got these little satellite Google Home Minis around your house – £35 a pop serving all your other needs.

LH: Absolutely.

CP: Really compelling.

LH: So, let’s take a bit of a deep dive into Studio Flow. Tell us what it’s all about for those who don’t know.

I can very much see conversational experiences and AI powered data being the next big thing.Craig Pugsley

CP: So, as I mentioned, we were in Just Eat for two and a half years. The whole voice experience, or conversational experience, has always been the bit that really, really interested me. The use of smartphones is on the decline and I think that as a way of users interacting with technology and with information is on the decline as well. And I can very much see conversational experiences and AI powered data being the next big thing really. And it’s a shift that I see and lots of people see similar to from desktop to mobile shift, you know, of previous years. So, I thought I’m going to specialise just in this.

So Studio Flow is a digital studio here in the South West that I’ve created that brings together a whole load of different talents, from UX design, copywriting, stagecraft as well, user research, technology, marketing skills. So, a whole range of people that I’ve worked with over the years and can bring together on projects and we specialise in conversational experiences. So, at the moment, that’s mainly Alexa skills, Google Assistant actions, bespoke voice experiences where companies want to do something unique and that they own all DIP for and they can do full stack development on. Then a little bit of other stuff as well that involves conversation, like a few bits of chatbot stuff and some research projects around that. So, that’s Studio Flow.

LH: Cool. Yes, I was looking at your website the other day actually and I can see that you help customers to either build their own or you completely take the reins on the interfaces. That’s really interesting that you offer both sides.

CP: Yes. Companies go through phases, it seems – and all this is very new as well, right? So, we’re learning about what companies want and companies are learning themselves about what their consumers want. It’s a journey that we go on and I apply all the same research methodologies that we did in the product research team to projects that I work on with clients. So, you know, we do lots of experimentation. We reach out to consumers and make sure that they’re the very focus of all the development and iteration that we do. We work with people in existing teams. So, typically a company will have an initial phase where they’ll build a Google Assistant action or an Alexa skill that surfaces one or two of their core use cases. They’ll then put that out to market in a very basic form, MVP as they call it (Minimal Viable Product), and then they’ll see if that’s got traction and if it does they’ll double down on it and build out that skill.

Increasingly though, customers are going to a second phase where they want to build a bespoke experience where they’re cherry-picking the bits of the voice stack effectively and using the bits that they want from different service providers in a hybrid with technology they’ve already got. So, you know, maybe they’ve got an account management process already in place that they’re already using for their other products. Or maybe they’ve got a CMS tool, a content management system, already that they’re surfacing content for their website blogs or for stuff that’s built into their existing iOS app. We can use that mechanism to serve content through their voice experience as well.

So yes, increasingly, I think, clients are moving from that initial learning phase of what do our consumers want into a much more sophisticated approach - okay, we’ve proven the business value of a voice experience, now we need to double down on that commercially and actually build that into a real core channel for our consumers that sits alongside the iOS apps and the web.

LH: Absolutely. It’s exciting times. So, you’ve been in the voice interface field for years and years. Studio Flow is quite new, isn’t it? Was it founded this year?

CP: Yes, six months ago actually.

LH: Oh, wow. So very early days.

CP: Very early days, yes. Very early days for us as a business.

LH: Yes, but loads of experience. What do you see the next, sort of, five years looking like?

We’re really at a tipping point and it’s not a case of if, it’s a case of when.Craig Pugsley

CP: I think we’re really at a tipping point and it’s not a case of if, it’s a case of when obviously with conversational experiences, there’ll be a killer app. For Alexa at the moment, it’s setting kitchen timers and it’s checking the weather, you know, that’s predominantly what people use those skills for. It’s only going to take one provider to come along and do the next killer function for Alexa and all of a sudden people will go oh yes, fine, I get it. Then everyone’s going to want an Alexa skill.

I think we’re going to see a huge amount of growth in the business as companies build voice experiences into the core of their product roadmaps. That’s going to be a big deal. Studio Flow has a big research arm as well, so we work with companies who want to do research projects into this space. And that’s mainly around conversational experiences but also around AI and other types of machine learning as well. So, we have a research piece that we do with people and I think that’s going to keep growing as well as the field develops even further.

Also, partnerships are the other big thing that we’re working on at the moment. We’re partnering with content providers, we’re partnering with research and academic industries and bodies, and we’re partnering with other clients as well that have got really interesting things to do to try and develop stuff together. Art projects, for example. So, I think the partnership side of Studio Flow – I’ve seen real interest and traction in that area and I think that’s going to be another big development piece for us as well.

LH: That sounds so exciting. Watch this space.

CP: Yes, absolutely.

LH: Also, I want to know a little bit more about your Meetup. I know that in the South West you host a community of voice apps and chatbot designers and builders. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that?

CP: Yes. So, there are quite a few Meetups in this area in this space really, in machine learning AI and next generation tech. And I wanted to, a bit like I have with StudioFlow, just specialise specifically on conversational experiences because there didn’t seem to be one that was specifically around that area.

So yes, we started up VC South West, - Voice and Chatbots South West, which actually makes it sound a bit more like an investment fund Meetup. I think it needs a bit of rebranding on that maybe but the purpose of that is just to bring together domain experts, industry leaders that are in this area, and also people that just don’t know anything about it yet that are massively interested in learning without having to engage in some big commercial relationship with us or with anyone.

We had our first Meetup which was really successful. We were talking about all kinds of things. We had some really interesting people come along to that. It looks like I may be merging that with another Meetup in this area - someone else has started something very similar. I’ll have some more details on that in the coming months, but when we release that to the public and when that Meetup comes to fruition it’s going to be a huge new group of people.

I think that’s really where it’s going to fulfil its original purpose of being this, kind of, melting pot of different disciplines and ideas. You could come along one day and speak to a script writer who’s working on a play, and the next day you could come along and speak to someone who’s working on some crazy AI algorithm that’s going to be able to pick out patterns of people’s intonation in their voice or whatever, you know?

LH: Yes.

CP: And those people are going to come together and something amazing is going to happen because that’s how creativity works and that’s how great products are created. So yes, the Meetup is great. It’s got a lot of traction so far. We’re going to look to merge it. More news on that coming soon. But yes, I’d urge all of your listeners, if they’re interested in this space and want to come along and just dip their toe in the water really, to sign up to one of those Meetups.

LH: Yes, definitely. So, how could people get involved or at least keep it on their radar?

CP: So, I would hook up with StudioFlow on Twitter or drop us an email. Go on and seek us out on there. If you look for VC South West, Voice and Chatbots South West or look for me, when we announce this big amalgamation and the big merge, everything on there will change, but as a member of that Meetup you’ll be the first to know on that one as well. So yes, come in through those channels and we’ll keep you posted.

LH: That’s fab. I’m definitely going to come to your next Meetup.

CP: Super.

LH: Right. So, I’ve got two final questions for you. One is mainly out of curiosity and the last one is something we ask all of our guests. So, the first one is what’s your favourite skill?

CP: Oh, my favourite skill is, there’s a storybook skill that we use at the moment. It’s actually on Google Assistant because I’ve been using Google Assistant a lot more in our household than Alexa just recently.

LH: Why is that?

CP: It’s really interesting. For me, as a consumer as well as a domain expert, my usage of the platforms fluctuates quite a bit as new features are added or as we bring a new device into the house. Because as you can probably imagine, my house is a ridiculous Aladdin’s cave of half connected, wireless, smarts. I had a competition with a friend of mine for the most ridiculous internet connected device we could find on Amazon. And I think I won this one although it is still open. I found a scent diffuser that has an IFTTT recipe.

LH: Oh, wow.

CP: Yes, it’s crazy. It’s ridiculous and it’s completely insane and utterly, utterly over engineered but I think I’ve claimed the crown on that one.

LH: That is funny.

CP: But I could wire that up so that if a person is recognised by my nest hello doorbell it would send an IFTTT recipe that fires off the scent diffuser and makes it smell like lavender in the house when I walk in. I mean, it’s just ridiculous, right? But I think I’ve won that one.

LH: That is so brilliant that you found that. Yes, I think you’ve definitely won.

CP: But the devices that we bring into the house mean that we fluctuate quite a bit. So, you know, we were an Amazon house for years and years and we had one of the first Echo Shows. That was in the kitchen and we used that for creating lists and timers and watching bits of YouTube clips and all the things that it’s great at. Then we got a couple of Google Home Minis in and actually, that platform I think is in the lead actually. I honestly think that Google Assistant at the moment are offering a more compelling experience to consumers. Not only is it, I think, arguably more accurate, but this multi-modal way that Google Assistant can go between devices is really interesting. As a user, I find that really useful as well.

At the moment that’s where we are. We’ve got more Google Assistant devices than we do Alexa. But Amazon have the first mover advantage and they’re entrenched. All of my devices at the moment that I use in my home – my lights, my TV, my smoke alarms, everything that I’ve got that’s internet connected is all internet connected via Alexa and I haven’t transitioned that across to Google yet. So, I can’t take Alexa out of my home and I won’t. So yes, it’s really interesting.

At the minute I think the most interesting skill, to answer your question, is on Google Assistant. It’s an action to do almost like a choose your own adventure storyline and the kids can insert their names into it. And, you know, if you wanted an example of why just the simplest voice experience can have a massive impact on people, that’s one of those experiences. The very first question it asks is who are you? What’s your name? And then it just repeatedly uses their name in the story and that’s so compelling to a child, right? - Oh, my goodness this story’s about me. That’s a really simple interaction. Technically it’s really simple to do as well but it creates a massively compelling user experience.

LH: That’s so brilliant. I haven’t heard of that. My nieces would absolutely love that.

CP: Yes, it’s a winner.

LH: That’s lovely. Okay, so for the final question. Which app or tool could you simply not live without?

CP: Oh, it’s my Apple Watch. No two ways about it, yes. I desperately try not to be an Apple Fanboy. I used to be and I think I’ve moved past that. I had therapy, I had counselling, I’m okay now. I’m a reformed Apple Fanboy.

LH: Did you? You’ve come out the other side.

CP: And I could take or leave an iPad and I think an iPhone is great but it’s just an iPhone. But my Apple Watch – having Siri, you know, whatever you think of Siri it’s still a functional voice system. Having that with me literally everywhere I am is a game changer. People say ‘Why do you like the Apple Watch?’, ‘What’s the killer app?’ And there is no killer app but there are so many tiny little killer apps that make it compelling as an overall experience that means I just couldn’t live without it.

It’s crazy things, like I’m cycling to work which is typically when I have my most interesting ideas but I also have a really bad memory. So, by the time I’ve got to work I’ve forgotten it. And how many ideas have gone up in smoke like that? But now I can just bark these ideas like a lunatic as I’m cycling through Bristol into my wrist and Siri diligently does the wind cancellation so that it can hear me as I’m barrelling along and does a very reliable job of transcription. Then it will remind me when I get to work.

I think again it’s a really great example for me of a simple voice interaction that’s adding real value to my business life and also home life as well. I mean, the number of the things that I’ve not forgotten to tell my wife now, you know, that make me look brilliant because I’ve got an amazing memory. And it’s not at all. I’m a massively augmented cyborg right now. A huge proportion of my mental capacity is now offloaded to Siri and my watch basically.

The other thing that, you know, as a massive unapologetic absolute die-hard techno geek as well, I can see the future that Apple are moving towards and I can see that with iPhones in decline and with the product which is the AirPod, which is actually my second-best device that I couldn’t live without - again I’m trying to convince everyone that I’m not an Apple Fanboy and I’m not doing myself any favours.

LH: You do sound like one Craig, I’m not going to lie.

CP: Back to therapy again. I’m regressing. You can see where Apple are going with this. They’ve got wireless headphones, they’ve got effectively a super computer on your wrist that’s internet connected now via cellular. It only takes a pair of augmented reality goggles and with all the push that they’re doing into AR as well that they were doing back in IOS11, you can see a whole new paradigm emerging where screens become completely irrelevant because you can put information on any surface around you.

Microsoft showed us that with the HoloLens a few years ago when that was released. And I think that was a really interesting early step. But as Apple do, you know, they wait and they see what everyone else does and then they bring a better product to market. And I think that’s what they will be doing in the next few years. So yes, for me it’s the watch and what the watch means.

LH: That’s brilliant. I think that’s a good choice. Craig, thank you, you’ve been so interesting and it’s been brilliant to have you as a guest on The Botcast.

CP: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you and thank you for your listeners as well. Bye-bye.

LH: Cheers, Craig.