One day, almost a year ago, I was fiddling with a famous question-and-answer website, and I thought: Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could access a worldwide question-and-answer community by just using my voice? And maybe makes it fun by organizing a global competition among users? Thrilled by this idea, I decided to create QA Bazaar.

What it does

QA Bazaar is a question-and-answer Skill that allow users to ask and answer questions by using their voice. To access the community, it is sufficient to enable the Skill, currently from US and all countries (26 across Europe) supported by the UK marketplace.

Q&A experience In short: a user asks a question (there can be just one active question, but she can revoke it and ask a new question at any time). When at least one answer is available, a notification is sent to the user's device. The questioner can collect as many answers as she wants, and listens to them as often as desired. Then, when her question has been properly answered, can accept the best answer. Accepting an answer has two consequences: no more answers are collected for the question and there is a reward for both the questioner and the responder (see Game-like features). On the other hand, users that want to answer questions (there is a reward in doing this, see Game-like features) receive questions from the community in an order managed by the back-end (see Premium experience).

Premium experience The Skill includes two kinds of questions: standard and high-priority. High-priority questions represent the Skill’s premium offer and, as the name suggests, are delivered to the community with precedence over standard questions. Therefore, high-priority questions receive more responses, faster than standard questions. For example, a user could ask high-priority questions about events with a time constraint, or because she needs to receive answers as quickly as possible. Users can purchase high-priority questions as consumable products, in three different sizes: singles, packs of three and packs of five. The concept of a premium experience based on different Quality of Service for questions, is a cornerstone of the Skill’s design. Soon, other types of questions will be released, as for example local questions, that is questions forwarded only to users residing in a specific geographical area. This will allow users to ask, for example, questions about local events in a city.

Game-like features By asking and answering questions, users earn knowledge points, a measure of their contribution to the community. Every week, on Sundays, there is a thrilling moment: the scores of all community members are compared, and each user receives the updated position in the global ranking and the status for the next week. There are several statuses in the Skill, from the basic Novice to the most powerful Oracle. To obtain a specific status, a user must meet his requirements in terms of minimum score and ranking position. The higher the status, the more demanding his requirements are. Every status other than Novice, gives the privilege of asking a number of high-priority questions for free. The higher the status, the more high-priority questions a user gets. From one week to the next, users compete to obtain increasingly powerful statuses, and are thus encouraged to keep their activity high.

Content control In the maximum effort to keep the community a clean and pleasant place, a two-levels content filtering has been implemented. First, in order to be sent, each question and answer must pass a level one filter against a black-list of known offensive terms. Secondly, users have the opportunity to mark a question or an answer as offensive: the marked content will be blocked and sent to be reviewed by our team.

Help The Skill features a comprehensive help organized by topic, in order to allow users to quickly get the information they need. Moreover, during the first sessions, users are guided through a series of first time speeches, so that they can gradually learn all the Skill’s functionalities.

How I built it

The Skill took over 9 months to be designed and built, and the project complexity was managed through incremental Agile techniques. The back-end relies on 10 different AWS services, for unrivaled scalability, robustness, security and performance. To manage the delicate balance between questioners and repliers, a preliminary study of behavioral psychology was conducted, which then guided the entire Vocal User Interface design and Skill’s gamification. Among others, elements of the Fogg’s behavior model and mental heuristics were used in order to make the user experience as frictionless and pleasant as possible. To this end, all the latest Alexa features and best practices were used, such as progressive responses to minimize perceived latency, proactive events (notifications), earcons, a comprehensive help system, and the use of Polly to simulate community members’ voices and increase engagement.

Challenges I ran into

The main challenge I had to face was the Skill testing. QA Bazaar is a complex distributed application, consisting of different interacting parts, and with a lot of parameters related to back-end algorithms that need to be adjusted. Test it was really hard. I wanted the Skill to be rock-solid in terms of performance, scalability and robustness, so I wrote a lot of “side code” to test a huge number of different scenarios, and all this was very tiring.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of

I am proud to have completed such a complex project! When I started, the complexity seemed overwhelming, so I decided to approach it in an incremental way. Seeing the Skill in action after months of hard work was very gratifying. For almost four months, I only focused on the Skill’s design and basic principles, and I refined them until I was satisfied. During this time, I worked with a friend of mine (thank you!) - who is a psychologist - to bring some principles of behavioral psychology into the Skill’s design. I studied a lot of new (for me) and interesting subjects, and all this was fun and rewarding.

What I learned

I learned many things, especially about staying up all night testing the application :D. Joking apart, I feel enriched both humanly and technically by this wonderful experience.

What's next for QA Bazaar

Next months, I will work on expanding the premium offer with other forms of special questions, such as local questions, and with a subscription offer that will allow users to access their Q&A history. Moreover, other features will be added (notably, voice profiles and APL). Finally, a detailed monitoring of the Skill’s usage will be paramount, in order to understand how users use the Skill and so how to improve it.

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