Designing Alexa skills for consumers? Focus on content first, Cigna head says

By Dave Muoio
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Voice assistants are finding their way into a growing number of consumer homes, leading an ever-increasing number of healthcare companies to investigate how these connected technologies can be used to improve patients' health and deliver pertinent information directly to the individual.

Unsurprisingly, building a successful consumer voice app comes with a number of challenges and considerations for any designer, but one that should never be overlooked is the content itself, according to Rowena Track, global VP of digital, channel, and partner marketing at Cigna.

“[With voice] I would say content is first and foremost,” Track said during the opening keynote of yesterday’s Voice of Healthcare Summit held at Harvard Medical School, Boston. “Within your digital ecosystem, if you don’t have content and if you don't treat it as a strategic asset, you really will not get there.”

Cigna launched its Answers by Cigna skill for Amazon Alexa in March, following roughly six months of internal development. Initially programed to answer more than 150 common healthcare questions and misconceptions for consumers, Track said that her company was “very surprised” by the positive attention their skill’s launch received from press, as well as by the nearly 4,000 customers who have downloaded and engaged with the offering to date.

“You would be surprised how many people don’t understand the basic words we use in healthcare,” she said. “Our business is very complicated, and one of our goals was to … use something natural like voice to demystify some terms.”

Now, the global health insurer’s experimental foray into consumer-focused voice services is capable of fielding inquiries on more than 250 subjects, Track said, and has provided the company with insight on how best to devise and launch similar offerings for its members. Chief among these was Track’s repeated assertion that content is central to success.

“Companies have a massive amount of content … for every medium, you have to make it medium-friendly — [for instance,] if you want to put it on Youtube, it has to be video-friendly as well. Now with voice, for Alexa, we started experimenting with it and found you can’t just give it too long of answers,” Track said. “So, ’What’s an HSA?’ What’s the shortest answer you can make Alexa answer here to keep the answers flowing? And, I think what you should treat content as a strategic asset when it comes to voice. Don’t start creating content for voice. Look within your organization, use data about your customers, and then start there.”

Track went on to describe how partnerships, both internal and external, are vital due to the diverse expertise necessary to design, program, analyze, and launch a new voice product. Similarly, she noted the importance of early and well-studied pilots to help calibrate a voice product, and stressed the importance of data collection and analysis both to fine-tune the offering and garner internal support.

“Become a storyteller and tell your story with numbers, because that’s how we can win the hearts, the minds, the profits, and purses [for funding],” Track said. “Once you start talking about voice, people are going to start thinking you’re strange, like, ‘how does this fit with healthcare?’ But once you have a small-cost pilot and you have the data for your points, people will want to invest.”

On the subject of fitting in with healthcare, Track made a point to note that voice offerings or others involving similar technologies won’t make a meaningful impact on customers if they’re thought of as a one-off endeavor.

“Don’t think of voice as one thing you can [develop] once and be done. It has to be part of your overall strategic plan, and [your] bigger-picture digital ecosystem,” she said. “You want [to use voice] to educate your customers, you want to empower them. That’s how you gain their trust, and that’s where they come back to you.”