For the latest Team Xbox Q&A, I chatted with Harrison from the Xbox Console Experiences team who worked on the new Alexa and Cortana Voice Skills for Xbox One!
Hi, Harrison! Really excited to chat with you about Voice Skills; thanks for making time for us and the Xbox Insider community. Can we start by having you state what you do for Team Xbox and how long you’ve been with the company?
For sure! I’ve been at Microsoft for 8 years and I’m currently a Senior Program Manager for Xbox Console Experiences. Basically, that means that myself and the team work on everything around how you interact with your Xbox console. Some of the more obvious areas are Dashboard, Guide, Setup, Voice, and Settings!
As I mentioned earlier, you managed the recent Voice Skills integration, allowing Xbox users to control their console via Alexa and Cortana. Mind telling us a bit about what that process looks like, and why you find the Voice Skills feature important?
While it’s been an idea bouncing around the team for a while now, we started on the Voice Skills project in earnest a little over a year ago. Really, it started with wanting to find a way to give voice control to more people. We had obviously been watching the rise of digital assistants and “smart speakers” closely and were impressed with their success, particularly in the smart home space. It just made sense that we would bring our expertise in creating voice experiences to these digital assistants, giving gamers more flexibility in how they interact with Xbox.
From there, the team set about figuring out what commands and scenarios we were going to include in the Skills as well as building the foundational software and services needed to power the Xbox Skill. We based our initial list on usage data from current voice experiences on Xbox, as well as feedback and suggestions from Xbox Insiders and MVPs. Once we had our scenarios identified, we started writing scripts for each command, containing utterances (things you can say) and responses (what the assistant says back). Our engineers then translated these scripts into the actual commands that you can use today!
Finally, we spent a lot of time testing, polishing, optimizing, and gathering feedback on the experience. Throughout the process, we spent time with the Cortana and Alexa engineering teams, tuning each skill to work as smoothly as possible and feel familiar in each ecosystem. We had a large internal beta inside Microsoft which helped us to identify and fix the worst bugs and get feedback on things like speed optimizations. After we felt good about the quality of the skills, we went out to Xbox Insiders!
Considering I worked with you on Xbox Insider Quests and Surveys for the Voice Skill feature, I can say firsthand that you took the preview very seriously, generating weekly Quests and exploring several areas of Voice Skills. How did the weekly updates benefit you, and what did you learn from previewing the Voice Skills feature?
From the beginning, we had a couple of goals with our Xbox Insider beta. First, we knew that we wanted to do rapid feedback and iteration to really get the product polished. Weekends have historically been our best times for engagement from Insiders, so our whole workflow was based around getting Insiders the latest skill updates and information for weekend testing.
While we were in beta, every Monday we would start by looking through the bugs, data, and feedback from Insiders over the weekend and create a plan for what feedback and bugs we wanted to address that week. Then, the team would work hard all week to get all of our changes and fixes in so that we could update the Skills on Friday, announce the update, and launch a new Quest for Insiders, ready for the weekend. We used this process over the course of the beta to quickly understand what people were running into and polish the areas that needed work!
Second, we wanted to scale test our services to make sure that they would work great on launch day. This is one of the areas where it’s really helpful to have such a great community of Insiders willing to try our new features and give us feedback. We saw lots of interest and usage from Insiders throughout the beta and that helped the team have confidence that we’d have a successful launch day!
Out of curiosity, what’s your favorite Voice Skill command to use?
My favorite command is definitely “Launch [game name].” I love coming home after work, saying “Alexa, launch Rocket League,” then plopping down on the couch as the console turns on, turns on the TV, signs me in, and starts up my game. Sometimes you just know what you want to play and this is a great command for that.
Ok, moving away from business: What games are you playing right now? Anything you’d recommend our readers check out?
You’re probably not surprised to hear that I’ve cleared out my gaming schedule for Red Dead Redemption 2, but recently I’ve been spending a lot of time with Forza Horizon 4 and Destiny 2: Forsaken. Of course, I also have a couple of favorites that I keep coming back to, basically every week: Overwatch and Rocket League.
We always ask the Xbox employees we profile to brag a bit about their Xbox Achievements. Is there an Achievement you’re particularly proud of yourself for unlocking?
I’d say that the achievement I’m most proud of unlocking is Raiding Party from Destiny. In order to unlock it, you have to complete a Raid with a full fireteam consisting only of your clan members. We gathered our full team of 6 together at my friend’s place one weekend to jump into the Vault of Glass as first time raiders. We struggled for hours and hours and hours at each phase of the raid as we fought to figure out mechanics and get our teamwork solid. Much to our dismay, we weren’t able to topple Atheon in the first weekend, but we kept getting better and better and more powerful until we were finally able to beat the raid and unlock Raiding Party.
Many of my most memorable gaming experiences revolve around playing with friends, but this one really stands out for me.
Finally, since you were active on Reddit throughout 1810 flighting, is there anywhere online Xbox Insiders can find and connect with you?
I’m always lurking around /r/xboxone and /r/xboxinsiders, but the best place to find me is probably on Twitter: @harrisonhoffman!