Inspiration

Childcare.co.uk is the UK's largest online platform that enables parents seeking childcare to connect with local childcare providers, such as babysitters, nannies and tutors.

Launched in 2009, our 1.5m members use our website and mobile apps to find, connect and communicate with each other.

Parents are busy people and we are always looking for new, innovative ways to improve our platform and make it quicker and easier for our users to find the childcare they need.

Allowing parents to use our service via Alexa, without the need to login to our website or mobile apps, improves the user experience and makes it even easier for families to find the help they need.

What it does

The Childcare.co.uk Childcare Finder Alexa skill, allows parents to listen to profiles of local babysitters that are available on the date and at the time when childcare is required. Users can browse forwards and backwards through the profiles to learn more about the experience and qualifications of each babysitter.

When a parent has found a babysitter they like the sound of, they can ask Alexa to send a message to them via our platform.

For example: "Alexa, ask Childcare Finder to find me a babysitter for Saturday at 8pm".

Alexa will find local babysitters based upon the postcode of the user. The babysitters have previously provided us with their profile information and detailed availability.

Alexa will automatically send messages to profiles of interest such as "Hi - I'm looking for a babysitter on Saturday at 8pm. Can you help? (Sent from the Childcare.co.uk Alexa Skill)".

When users login to our website or mobile apps, we highlight the profiles of babysitters that have been listened to via Alexa.

How we built it

Building this skill was new ground for our business, however most of us were already owners of an Alexa device so were familiar with the technology. We went head-first into Node.js (a new skillset for our team) to build the skill, following some of the excellent tutorials and documentation over at Amazon.com.

Within very little time, we had the basis of our skill, albeit with some faked data. We built a new API for our backend services, which serves as the interface between Alexa and our comprehensive database. It wasn't all plain sailing, however between the two key developers on the project, we found that we could quickly roll out new functionality and fix bugs. Part way through the project, Amazon rolled out their new functionality, such as Address Lookup, which we implemented as a fall-back for our own postcode lookup functionality.

Challenges we ran into

The biggest challenges were really around using a new framework in Node.js and understanding how to make calls out to our API. Once that was cracked, development really accelerated and we were able to roll out the full functionality very quickly. The other challenge was simply around our learning curve for working with the Alexa SDK and understanding how to get the most out of it.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

We launched the world's first multi-platform childcare search mobile app on iOS and Android in 2011 and in 2012 were crowned one of the Best Apps of 2012 by Apple.

As the world's most innovative childcare technology platform, we are proud to have launched the world's first childcare search Alexa skill which will allow our 1.5m users another great way to access our service.

What we learned

From a technical aspect, we learnt how fun Alexa skills development is and how far NLP systems have come. It's truly impressive and very exciting to see our skill come to life and become a part of the Alexa skills library!

Our customers are already starting to see the benefits of accessing our service via Alexa and there is already quite a buzz around the integration of Childcare.co.uk with Alexa.

What's next for the Childcare.co.uk Alexa Skill?

We'd like to expand the Childcare.co.uk Alexa skill to offer the ability for parents to search for other childcarer types, such as nannies and tutors. We'd also like to offer parents the ability to communicate with childcare providers using custom messages that they can speak to Alexa.

There are many more features from Childcare.co.uk that we can plugin to our Alexa skill such as the ability to rate and review childcare providers. In the future we'd also like to be able to offer the facility for our users to make telephone calls directly to babysitters using the skill and even potentially pay their babysitter using Amazon Pay!

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