Tips & Tricks - How To Become The Echo Whisperer


If This Then WHAT (IFTTT)?


IFTTT

IFTTT or If This Then That is a free to use service that runs on the internet allowing you to connect different smart home devices.

With it, you can automate or create triggers that will allow you to complete tasks that are not available on the Echo alone.

For example, you can create a trigger that will turn on your smart lights when your morning alarm goes off.

More and more devices are creating “Skills” that you can install on your Echo that eliminates a lot of the usefulness of IFTTT. Case in point, you used to have to use an IFTTT trigger to turn your Philips Hue lights a different color with Alexa but now you can do it by installing the skill, and you can cut IFTTT right out.

The advantage of doing it with a skill instead of IFTTT is that it is often times faster than running it through the third party service.

Running commands through the IFTTT slows them down at times, and I’ve had instances where it took 5 minutes before the command executed.

With that said, there are some cool things you can do with IFTTT. Here are some useful IFTTT and Alexa triggers…

Find My Phone - By far the most useful IFTTT command that I have ever used. If you can’t find your phone, you can just say “Alexa Trigger Find My Phone” and you will get a phone call alerting you to where your phone currently is. (Now also available with a skill.)

Lights Blink When A Timer Goes Off - If you’re in the kitchen, and you set an Alexa timer to turn off your stove, but you’re listening to some tunes and can’t hear it, you can set a visual timer, so you don’t burn your chicken. If you have smart light bulbs, your lights will blink on and off with this trigger.

Create A Task In Your To-Do App - There are many different to do apps and programs out there like OmniFocus, iOS reminders, etc. With this trigger, when you tell Alexa to remind you to do something, it will create an item in many popular productivity apps along with an entry in the Alexa app.

How To Automate Your Home Without Complicated Setups With Stringify


Stringify

Stringify is like IFTTT in the sense that it allows you to set up automations and triggers that enable you to connect smart home devices.

It’s quite a bit more powerful for the average user because it allows you to create a string of triggers.

So for example, with IFTTT you can have a trigger that turns your lights blue when it rains. With Stringify you can set a routine that turns the light blue when it rains, closes the garage door, turns on the electric fireplace, and notifies your husband/wife to pick up some hot chocolate on the way home from work.

The Echo does have some of the functionality of Stringify built in with it’s “Routines,” but it’s not quite as powerful yet.

At current, there is no web portal for Stringify; you have to download the iPhone or Android app to gain access to the system.

It also doesn’t have as many supported devices as IFTTT, but for the average user, you will find everything you need from August door locks to Ring doorbell cameras.

Some cool automations (or what they call “Flows”) you can set up with Stringify are:

Game Time - With Alexa, a Hue color light strip, an Xbox/Playstation/Nintendo and a Harmony Hub, you can say “Alexa tell stringify game time”. It will then turn on your console, change the lights to green, blue, or any color you choose, turn on the TV, and set the correct input.

Weather Related Actions - I talked a little bit about this above, but you can control many different flows based on the weather. So if it’s hot, you can shut your automated blinds and turn on the fan for example. Or you could set your Sonos to alert you when it’s going to rain tomorrow.

Security - There are many different Flows that you can set up to have your smart home interact with your security system. For example, you can set your Philips hue porch light to turn on when your Arlo security camera detects motion. You can also do something like allowing your wireless security camera turn off when you are at home to save some battery life.

Alexa Skills


Alexa Skills

The most common way to think of skills it to compare it to apps on your smartphone. To put it that way doesn’t quite capture what skills are and what they can do for you, however.

Sure, some skills act like traditional apps. Jeopardy, for example, is like a quiz app for your phone, but you answer questions by speaking instead of typing.

Other skills allow you to connect physical things to Alexa like your smart lights, your smart plugs, or even your car! Other skills are designed to enable Alexa to access your other systems. Store Card, for example, allows you to get information about and pay your Amazon store card bill.

To find skills you can either ask Alexa by saying “Alexa what are some good skills” (which is a bit limited) or you can go to the Skills homepage here.

In general, skills are pretty easy to install. After you know which skill you want to use, all you have to do is say something like “Alexa open 5-minute workout” and it instantly enables the skill.

I have had some issues in the past getting Alexa to install the skill that I asked it to enable. If you run across the same problem, you can enable the skill by going into the Alexa app, or you can go to the skills home page and “enable” it from there.

You could spend hours looking at all the different skills currently available for Alexa.

Here is a handful of some of the most useful ones that I’ve found:

Ask My Buddy - This tremendously useful app will allow you to send an emergency alert from your Echo to a personal contact that you’ve set up via text, email, and telephone.

It’s great for people with elderly parents or family members with disabilities. Also suitable for families with children that may arrive home from school before their parents.

They have recently added a “check-in” feature that allows you to say “Alexa ask my buddy to check in with “myContact” and it will send a message asking your contact how they're doing.

Mastermind - As the name suggests, Mastermind works as a whole host of useful functions that rides on top of the Alexa, voice assistant.

You can text, make phone calls, get caller ID, get status updates, launch apps on your smartphone, start Google maps navigation, and on and on.

Currently, it’s in closed beta. If you go to the page on Amazon for Mastermind and enable the skill, you will be asked to join a waiting list. This skill has been in beta for a long time, so I’m assuming it should be available for everyone soon.

Uber / Lyft - With either the Uber or Lyft app you can call for a ride directly from your Echo.

At the moment it's a bit limited in what you can do. For example, with Uber, you can’t set a destination and still have to either use the app or tell the driver when they arrive. With Lyft you can primarily set just one destination, your work.

One other feature Lyft has over Uber is that you can ask how much a ride is going to cost. So you can say “Alexa ask Lyft how much a ride from home to work costs.”

Kayak - If you’re sitting there dreaming about traveling to Hawaii on a rainy day, the Kayak app can give you some good basic info about booking a trip.

You can say something like “Alexa ask Kayak how much it costs to fly from Seattle to Hawaii” and it will let you know how much it costs in general. (Right now it costs $564 for a two-week trip:).

You can also track a flight, search for rental cars, and discover new destinations. For example, you could say “Alexa ask Kayak where I can travel to for $500”. If you have set your default airport, it will give you some options.

7 Minute Workout - The 7 Minute Workout is a “scientifically proven set of exercises designed to improve energy, increase metabolism, and reduce fat.”

It’s a pretty kick butt exercise regiment that will have you sweating in relatively short order.

Not a complete replacement for going to the gym or working out for an extended period but if you’re short on time that day or if you are getting going with an exercise program, it’s pretty good.

Checkout our list of Best Workout Songs!

Track By Nutritionix - By far the best way to lose weight is to count calories. If you’ve ever tried to count calories you know how much of a pain it can be.

That’s where Track by Nutritionix comes in. You can now say “Alexa tell food tracker to log an apple” and it will add it to your food log.

You can also get info on many different food items. So you can ask how many calories are in a slice of pizza if you are trying to find the motivation to not mow down the leftovers from your cheat meal. (Pizza has around 500 calories a slice. Yikes!)

Dominos - Calories be damned! If it is time for that cheat meal or if you don’t have time to cook. The Dominos skill will allow you to order your favorite pizza pie with a single command.

Recently, Domino's has upped their pizza game. They've upgraded the taste and consistency of their crust and started using fresher ingredients. I used to hate Dominos. Now I love it!

Anyhow, you can also get status updates, and this skill will let you know if your pizza is in the oven or out for delivery.

Starbucks Reorder - This wonderful skill will allow you to reorder the exact last drink that you purchased from the Starbucks smartphone app.

If you always get the same thing, this can be a real time saver. Just ask “Alexa ask Starbucks to start my order.” You can also check the balance on your Starbucks card.

It is a bit limited at the moment. For example when you order it sends it right away. You can’t delay the order so if you live far away from the Starbucks your coffee may be sitting there for a while before you pick it up.

Sleep Sounds - Not many Skills have a perfect 5-star rating, but Sleep sounds by Invoked Apps is a useful and worthwhile sleep machine that comes preloaded with over 40 different soundtracks to lull you to sleep.

White noise has been scientifically proven to help you fall asleep easier and allow you to have a more restful sleep once you’re there. It does this by drowning out uneven noise patterns that might come up when you’re sleeping.

There are many different sleep sound skills, and if you don’t find this one to be the best for you, you can also try Ambient Noise, Sleep & Relaxation Sounds, and Beautiful Dream.

Smart Home Skills - There are tons of smart home skills for Alexa in the Skills store. I’ve grouped them here because they all have one thing in common. You don’t need them unless you have the hardware for that skill.

So, for example, you won’t find much use out of the ecobee skill if you don’t have an ecobee smart thermostat.

When you do have the hardware, many of these skills have some cool additions that you can run on your Echo. For example, you can change the color of your lights with your voice with the Philips Hue bulbs and companion skill.

Fun & Games - You can build trivia games from scratch, create jokes, and build a list of motivational quotes.

With family trivia, you can create a list of questions and answers that only your family would know. This is a pretty cool spin on an old game.

Learning & Knowledge - In learning and knowledge you can create quizzes, make flashcards and produce a list of facts.

This is a fun and enjoyable way to study for a test for yourself or your kids. If you’ve ever had to remember a long list of things for a test, you can see how this would be useful.

Storyteller - Do you remember those old choose your own adventure books? With storyteller skills, you can create a personal experience.

You can also create a personalized story where you get to choose the hero. It could be yourself, your kids, your wife/husband, or anyone else.

Alexa Skill Blueprints


Alexa Skill Blueprints

Blueprints - Alexa Blueprints allow you to create your own custom Alexa skill without having to know how to program.

You can’t do anything crazy like building a skill that will order Jack in the box for you, but you can build some fun and useful skills that will allow you do some interesting things.

It’s broken into four different sections with prefilled options to get you started.

At Home - For me, At Home is the most useful types of skills you can create with the new Blueprint skills creator. With it, you can give instructions to the pet sitter, the nanny, or your house guests.

Like many of you, I have a lot of smart home tech around the house, so it's complicated for people who come over to know how to do something as simple as turn on the lights.

You can list a bunch of different tasks like turning on the lights, asking Alexa for the wifi password, and where the TV remote is.