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voice . alexa . google assistant

BBC CBeebies
Skill Prototype

Bringing CBeebies characters to life through a prototype voice experience for Amazon Alexa.

Background & objectives

In 2017 the BBC commissioned Screenmedia to develop a prototype voice experience for young children as part of a broad-reaching strategy to help kids ‘Get Closer to the Characters’ through emerging technologies. Working with three popular shows from the BBC’s toddler-oriented Cbeebies brand, we crafted three interactive narrative experiences which aimed to challenge, entertain, and educate their audiences.

Working in close collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team within the BBC, we consulted on scripting to ensure the scripts they crafted were adapted to the medium of an interactive voice experience for maximise user experience. Created for Amazon Alexa, the experience was one of the first children’s entertainment skills to be developed by a major brand. With little in the way of benchmarking, we developed and defined a set of standards and best practice for entertainment skills, particularly those aimed at children. These standards have gone on to be used in our future entertainment skills, like Channel 4’s The Human Test.

Defining best practice

With few existing children’s entertainment skills to benchmark our work against, we spent a lot of time exploring the psychology of children’s entertainment shows and developing ideas to maintain engagement and stimulus throughout each experience.

Recalled answers

Children’s answers are stored and recalled later in the experience, letting them know their answers matter and investing themselves more in the choices they make.

Fail forwards

To ensure each child is offered a complete and frustration-free experience, the narrative is designed to ‘fail forward’ where Alexa fails to detect a valid answer, preventing them from becoming stuck in a loop or closing the skill with the narrative incomplete.

Complex navigation

We introduced a top level navigation structure uncommon to voice skills to allow the BBC to maintain multiple shows and experience types within a single skill and help guide children in the range of shows and experiences available to them.

Story mode

We developed a ‘story mode’ specifically for narrative entertainment skills which ensures a wide range of experiences can be contained within the same skill without the user jumping between experiences.

High replayability

We randomised elements of the narratives on each playthrough to deliver different experiences each time and encourage replayability.

A rich media experience

We knew from the outset we wanted the experience to be engaging and offer a rich mix of stimuli. Rather than use the native assistant voice, producers at the BBC secured the shows' voice talent and recorded bespoke audio for us, replacing Alexa’s voice entirely with the voices of the shows' characters and hosts. While presenting a scripting challenge, this boosts children’s familiarity and engagement with the skill as they recognise their favourite characters.

A broad range of interaction types

To maximise the entertainment value of our skill and avoid repetitive inputs, we drew on our experience in voice and narrative development as well as cues from existing children’s tv shows to included a broad range of interaction styles within the skill.

Mixed play styles

The skill offers a mixture of play types, from playing a game with the Go Jetters, taking part in a singalong with Down on the Farm, or going on an adventure with Andy’s Prehistoric Adventure.

Multiple choice

For simple interactions, the skill gives children up to three options, then riffs off the answer they supply. This reinforces the idea that the children’s answers matter, and builds the connection between the child and the character.

Open-ended questions

Children are given freedom of choice and creativity in selecting answers to some questions, like choosing colours, fruits, and numbers. These questions are backed by extensive slot choices with fallbacks in place if children select an answer not included in our slot ranges. This allows open ended answers to be stored and recalled later in the experience, adding to the magic.

Simulated interactions

Mimicking the simulated interactions common in childrens’ tv shows, at points the skill asks children to clap, stamp their feet, or shout out answers, with the skill simply pausing to afford the child time to complete their action before applauding them and continuing the narrative.

Keeping an eye to the future

Throughout the planning and ideation of the project, we were keen that the skill would provide the BBC with a template for a long lasting and extensible solution. We worked alongside BBC content writers to upskill them on best practice writing for voice interaction models, and developed the navigation and story mode elements to allow the BBC to add more shows and play types for each show over time.

We also developed a roadmap encouraging connection to other media formats, like ‘secret’ passwords in the Cbeebies magazine unlocking content within the skill, and connecting the skill to Cbeebies’ other platforms allowing badges earned within the skill to be displayed or used on web and mobile interactions.

Outcomes

Once completed, the BBC tested our skill with real families with great results. Parents loved the imaginative play the skill encouraged in their children, as well the reduction in the amount of time their children spent on tablets. Parents also felt the skill encouraged better speech and pronunciation behaviours in their children, on account of the speech fidelity requirements of the Alexa assistant. For their part, children also loved the skill, with high rates of engagement and retention recorded across all families taking part in the trial. The prototype phase is now complete, and the skill has been accepted by the BBC into their roster of considerations in developing their ongoing digital engagement strategy.

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