Alexa Tips & Tricks

Amazon Alexa

Our 'How-to' guide to make the most out of features that unlock true customisable voice control of your smart home with the help of Amazon Alexa

From our Founder

Ben Tomlinson

Technical Director, Epixx

I was on site doing a system handover recently with one of our clients, and as I was showing him around the Alexa app he said to me, "Is there not an instruction manual for this?"

Unfortunately the smart home side of Alexa is pretty poorly documented and quite often you have to know which specific search terms to use to even get any sense out of Google.

As a result of this conversation, I'm going to share some things I've picked up along the way with regard to voice commands that you might not know about, and most importantly -

How to get the most out of a smart-home system with Alexa as a driving force. Whether you're an existing Epixx client or you're here looking for some advice on this subject - I hope you can take away something from this article to improve or build upon your system.

Alexa's Initial Limitations

I was an early adopter of Alexa – being the geek that I am. (the main reason I started Epixx was so I could do this type of work – which is literally my main passion in life)

Of course – I couldn’t wait for this ground breaking voice control system and managed to order one from the United States long before the official UK release date. I still use my generation 1 Amazon Echo (complete with US to UK Power adapter) in my home today. (Albeit mainly used as a cooking timer).

Upon the initial release, smart home support was pretty limited, early “IOT” smart home products (such as Philips Hue) jumped on the bandwagon and allowed voice control of their lights.

The main issue was Alexa had no room logic. She didn’t know which room she was in, therefore, even if you were in the kitchen, you’d have to say “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” to turn the lights on.

Quote

Ben Tomlinson

Technical Director, Epixx

This (as far as voice commands go) is longer & more complicated than it needs to be, when the same result could be achieved with a simple "Alexa, lights on".

As a result, if this was handed over as a finished smart home system, users would find themselves defaulting to the good old-fashioned light switch as it's simpler to operate.

Users would then develop a bad relationship with Alexa thinking she's too difficult to use, when the reality is - when installed & configured correctly she can perform some VERY smart tasks if configured and asked to do so.

Groups Are Your Friend

To me, the room limitation wasn’t good enough and I said I would not support Alexa on my smart-home installations until this feature was implemented. Purely because I had this tech at home.

From personal experience, it was a pain having to use such long commands to control the system. After all – it’s a system that can replace a light switch – it had to be as easy as it’s predecessor, otherwise, simply put – people won’t use it.

I joined numerous forums online with other custom integrators and smart home enthusiasts who were keen for this feature, and collectively, we discussed the best way for Amazon to make this happen.

Together we rallied for room logic support so Alexa would understand which room she was in, not only to streamline, but to simplify the whole smart home experience for our clients.

Amazon then updated the platform to include “Groups” (whether this was on the development roadmap or not prior to our moaning on forums is up for debate) But this unlocked the feature we had been waiting for – You could now walk into a room and say “Alexa, Lights on” and she would know what to do dependant on which room you’re in.

Configuring Groups

The good news is – configuring groups is really simple and adds this “room logic” feature that makes everything really simple. Devote 10 minutes of your time to getting your devices in the right groups and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Before we start, make sure you’ve added all your smart home devices to your Alexa either by adding the “Skill” in the main menu or simply saying “Alexa, discover devices” if you’ve recently added some extra bits of kit to your system.

After you’ve added all your devices, you then need to navigate to the “devices” tab in your Alexa app, then tap the (+) symbol in the top right of the app, from this menu you can add a “group”.

For the purpose of this exercise the “group” is literally the room in question. You need to add all your devices within the room to the group – be sure to add the Alexa in that room to the group too.

Once you’ve completed this process the Alexa in that room should understand which devices are within that room and you should be able to walk in and simply say “Alexa, Lights on/Lights off”

Configuring Devices That Aren't So Intuitive

Every smart home is different, people buy technology that benefits them individually. Devices, smart home preferences and technology priorities are driven by each person’s individual lifestyle. That’s why we never get bored at Epixx, we’re constantly faced with new challenges making all the latest technology easy to use for our end users.

Quite a lot of tech companies are ahead of the curve and developing kit faster than Alexa can understand (at least as far as simple intuitive voice commands are concerned)
Not to mention certain devices are called different things dependant on which side of the atlantic you’re on…
(Nobody in the UK wants to have to ask Alexa to close the “shades”)

Welcome to the Routines menu. In my option, the best and arguably most overlooked and underused part of the Alexa infrastructure.

Let's Get Customising.

Lets start with a recent example on of how people want simple control of their tech.

I was asked if I could control a Panasonic air conditioner with Alexa… a question that came up after I had configured all the client’s blinds, lights and TV’s for voice control via Alexa and Savant. The short answer was “I don’t know”, but after finding the Panasonic air conditioner skill on the Alexa Skill store and logging in with the client’s details I was a little disheartened with how conveluted the voice command was.

“Alexa, ask Panasonic to set the Bedroom to 16.5°”

Nobody wants to remember this!

It’s too long and nobody would use it in day to day life. The effort required to remember this string of words outweighs the effort required to manually turn the air conditioner on, and thus it would be a pointless exercise, much like Alexa was prior to the implementation of groups mentioned above.

If This, Then That

The routines section of the app can help to make things simple, with voice commands that are tailored to you and your lifestyle. Use phrases that you create, but that Alexa understands too, so there’s never any confusion between you and your tech.

Most people have a preference as to what temperature they like their bedroom, so telling the system what temperature it needs to be set to can be avoided by configuring a simple routine.

Routines are a great way to streamline the Alexa experience. In short, the routines menu is a really powerful “cause and effect” engine that allows you to say anything to Alexa, and then have her perform a series of tasks based on that request – Example:

Cause: If I say: “Alexa, turn on the air con”,
Effect: Turn on & set Panasonic air conditioner to preferred temperature (17°).

This is pretty much as basic as routines get, but it gives you the power to set devices to pre-sets when you say custom voice commands that you’ve configured personally, and because you’ve tailored these commands to your requirements, they should be easier to remember.

What If I've already got a smart home and i would like these features added?

If you already have a smart home, whether it was installed by ourselves or others, and would like to add Alexa support to your system, please get in touch on the link below, we have created this post for clients that are tech savvy and like to play around with their systems, however we understand that some people like things to be configured for them, during a meeting between ourselves and you.

If you would like to book a personal Alexa customisation please contact us on the link below and we’ll be happy to guide you through your next steps in your smart home journey.

Adding voice services to you existing smart-home

At Epixx we're always bench testing the latest developments, whether its voice control from Alexa, Siri or Google Home. If you would like to talk further about your project feel free to give us as call today, or click enquire now to send us an email.

Lets get really geeky

If you want to have a go at a custom Alexa routine at home, why not start with an “Alexa to Alexa routine”?
You can start out creating routines by using any phrase starting with “Alexa”:

“Alexa, Play baby shark”

and add the action as any reply, such as Alexa replying with:

“Oh no, not again”

At this stage you can then add steps to the routine, such as time delay and control of other smart home devices, – giving you the ability to create a ‘macro’ or a list of commands to execute based on a single voice command. Example:

Cause: “Alexa, I’m going out”
Effect: Turn off all lights, TV, Music and heating off. Wait 30 minutes then close all blinds.

You see where I’m going with this! The possibilities are endless.

Sonos Support

One quick note about Sonos support before we wrap this article up. When adding a “smart speaker”, You’re given the ability of adding a “preferred speaker” to your group when creating rooms in the Alexa app.

You can add your Sonos speaker within that room as a preferred speaker, and saying:

“Alexa, Play Music” will start music playing from the Sonos speaker assigned to the room. However at the time of writing this implementation of Sonos is extremely limited and we personally think that if you’re looking for Alexa to control your smarthome as your primary input – then a system such as Origin Valet may be a better option, because it’s purely dependant on Alexa as a music source, you face no problems with future software updates etc, as the system uses Alexa as the primary audio source.