How to really customize your Alexa Flash Briefing

If you have a favorite news source that you want to add to Alexa, here's how to do it.

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If you've got an Amazon Echo, Dot, or other Alexa-enabled device, you've probably discovered Flash Briefings. (For those not yet talking to Amazon devices, a Flash Briefing is a customized audio news report.)

When you first set up an Echo or Dot, the Briefing typically comes with a couple of news sources already added. However, you can add, remove and reorder other "skills" (as apps such as the news reports are called in Amazon-speak) to get a daily (or hourly) audio news report.

There are already close to 2,000 options for adding general content sources to a Flash Briefing. You can find them in the Alexa app under Settings > Flash Briefing > Get More Flash Briefing Content. But maybe you've got another source you wish could be included that's not yet available. If that content is already in an RSS feed, you can add it your Flash briefing even if it's not an "official" Alexa Flash Briefing skill. Here's how.

Customizing Alexa - step 1 Sharon Machlis
Click the Alexa tab in the top navigation bar.

First, you need a free Amazon Developer account. Sign up at the Amazon Developer portal. Click on Sign In and use the same email account as you use for your Alexa device on Amazon. That's important, because only a developer's account can access not-yet-approved Alexa feeds.

Next, click the Alexa tab in the top navigation bar and choose the first option, the Alexa Skills Kit. Click the Add a New Skill button at top right. You'll have a few options on the opening screen.

Customizing Alexa - step 2 Sharon Machlis

Choose the Alexa Skills Kit.

  • Skill Type -- This should be set to Flash Briefing Skill API
  • Language -- For a Flash Briefing skill, the only choice in the U.S. is American English
  • Name -- Pick a name for your briefing between two and 50 characters

Click the Next button.

If this were another kind of skill, you'd be coding how it interacts with Alexa. But since it's a Flash Briefing skill, there's nothing for you to do but give it content, so you just hit Next again.

On the next screen you'll be asked to add a custom error message, such as "News is temporarily unavailable." The most important thing here is to give it content using the Add new feed button.

Customizing Alexa - step 3 Sharon Machlis

Add information about your feed on this screen.

Your preamble can be something like: "In top news from Computerworld" (or whatever your source). Name the feed something that makes sense to you. Select how often you expect the content to update.

The content type is text, unless your source is a podcast or other audio file. Content genre is whatever you'd like from Amazon's drop-down list here (technology is an option), and then you want to include a link to a JSON or RSS feed.

Amazon's technical requirements for feeds include things like 24 x 7 availability and 1-second latency, but that's for skills available to the public. You can't submit a Flash Briefing skill for public use unless you have legal rights to distribute the content, but I don't see anything wrong with creating a for-your-use-only feed from a public RSS feed -- after all, the reason publishers create RSS is for the public to use them, whether in an application like Feedly, a screen reader for the visually impaired, or Alexa.

You can see a whole slew of Computerworld RSS feeds at http://www.computerworld.com/about/rss/. Unfortunately, they're not in Alexa-friendly format, which is why we created a Computerworld Flash Briefing Alexa skill. You can add Computerworld to your Flash Briefing the conventional way -- just search for Computerworld Top Tech News under skills and then enable it.

Alexa reads out the description field of an RSS feed (or mainText in a JSON file). If you've got access to a server and some coding skills, you could copy the title field as the description field and have it read you some Computerworld headlines. Or, you could use another feed, such as BBC News' Health RSS feed at http://feeds.bbci.co.uk/news/health/rss.xml. In fact, the toughest part of this whole process is getting an RSS (or JSON) feed in an Alexa-friendly format.

If you've done that, the last thing you need is a 512 x 512 image for the feed. And when Amazon says 512 pixels by 512 pixels, they mean it; I uploaded a 510 x 510 Computerworld logo while creating our feed and it was rejected.

Make sure to save the feed, then save the full page and hit Next.

That's it; you're now ready to start testing the skill. Open your Alexa app or go to https://alexa.amazon.com and go to Skills > Your Skills. You should see your new skill in there.

Click on Enable Skill, just as you would do for any third-party public skill. Once it's enabled, you can click Manage in Flash Briefing. It should be added to the top of your briefing. Ask "Alexa, what's in the news?" and you should have your new, custom feed as part of your Flash Briefing.

If the test works, you're done -- unless you're working on a corporate news or personal blogging feed where you have rights to distribute the content, and you'd like it to be available for public use. If so, hit Next and begin the certification submission.

Next: 9 Alexa tips and tricks

This story, "How to really customize your Alexa Flash Briefing " was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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