Niklas Jansen founded Blinkist in 2012. The company lets you read or listen to “the key lessons from 2000+ nonfiction books in 15 minutes or fewer.” Voicebot connected with Niklas to discuss his new Alexa skill, Blinkist Minute, and how voice is changing the way we interact with content and computing.
Tell me about Blinkist. What do you do?
It is a service that distills the key ideas of the worlds’s best non-fiction books into 15 minutes of audio or text for readers. We started 4 years ago and now have customers in 190 countries, mostly in the US, Canada and Germany.
What sparked your interest in developing an Amazon Alexa skill for Blinkist?
After Amazon released Alexa we became very excited about the platform on the first day. This is a platform with a big future. First we had the web and then mobile came and voice is the next platform. I even think voice platforms will replace mobile at some point. We have been trained over the past 10 years to look at a small device that we carry around with us. Voice makes technology more human again and allows us to live the way we used to before mobile devices.
So, we wanted to build a skill right away to be an early player on the platform. We wanted to learn from users and grow with it. It opens up a lot of new use cases for people to interact with technology.
You have both text and audio content. How are you handling the text content? Are you having Alexa read it to the user?
We started with text only, but very soon realized that to have a product that people would use every day we needed to do audio too. We started adding audio in 2014 and 80-90% of our titles have both text and audio versions.
However, we decided to take a different approach to our first Alexa skill. It is the Blinkist minute. One idea, one fact, one concept from a non-fiction book that you can take with you throughout your day.
For the first version we curate the content on a daily basis. A user will say, “Alexa, play Blinkist minute.” We then play [content about] an idea, a news item or inspiring topic of the day. I expect this to evolve into something more interactive where the user asks about a specific topic and we provide information of 1-2 minutes on that topic.
We then create a stream so you can listen to a bunch in a row. It brings sparks of insight to people while laying on the couch and really gets them thinking. I think it is one of the best things we have done in the last two years at Blinkist.
How did you go about developing the skill and working with Leon and Jochen from Onsei?
They found us. We were introduced by a mutual friend after a Meetup about 6 months ago. The Alexa topic was getting hotter and hotter shortly after the Echo Dot was announced. We already had this idea of building a skill and didn’t know how. We were deciding whether to build it in-house or use a partner. After meeting Onsei it was really clear that we should work with them.
Onsei already had a skill in the skill store. That was important to us. Jochen was also really passionate about the platform. He has many Amazon Echos and Google Homes that he was using. We knew that if we wanted to do something for Amazon Alexa and were going to use a partner, we needed someone that was really passionate about the platform.
What was the process like for working with Onsei?
It was pretty straightforward. We designed how we thought the skill should work and then provided the information to Onsei and they built the skill. They provided input on the design and then started building.
Did you design the skill or Onsei?
We started doing a research process where we interviewed 15 people from around the world to determine how they used voice assistants and what they expected from the system. Based on this feedback we started designing the skill.
What did you learn from your research?
For most people, it’s still a speaker. It has all of this conversational interface technology, but people don’t want to talk to Alexa all of the time. They want to give one order and not have too many interactions. The future of the platform is conversational. If it stays as a speaker it won’t add enough value. When it becomes more conversational it will really take off.
People are excited about Alexa but haven’t developed any routines around the Alexa skills. That is a huge opportunity for every developer and for Amazon to shape the behaviors of how people interact with the platform.
What about Google Home and Microsoft Cortana? Will Blinkist be on those platforms soon?
We are looking at these platforms too. No immediate plans. We are very excited about these platforms in general and have to see how they are different than Amazon Alexa.
What is your favorite Alexa skill?
I use Alexa a lot and I use Google Home a little bit. However, Google Home is not available in Germany so its really hard to test it here. But Alexa is also a huge problem for me personally. My Amazon account is in Germany so I don’t have easy access to US skills, but I have used many of them. To be honest, compared to the US store, the German store is still very immature. When in the US, I really like the Wall Street Journal flash briefing.
In Germany the BVG skill is very good. If I need to get to a place, [it will tell me] what’s the best way to get there.