Home Automation How To

Create Custom, Natural Language Alexa Commands with Routines

Echo Plus Black Kitchen 2

We love the ability to use voice with the various digital assistants available to control connected devices around the home. It changes the way you interact with your home. But one of the complaints we’ve had is how the limited domain support for Alexa, Cortana, and the Google Assistant requires you to often use very stilted, unnatural language. To trigger a scene, for example, you might say something like “…turn on ‘It’s Movie Time.'” Or you may need to name the skill in your command, like “…ask ecobee to set the temperature to 72.” Amazon’s new Alexa Routines suggests there’s finally a better way.

While not fully baked yet, this new Routines feature is rolling out to the Alexa app. The feature provides you with some limited ability to craft more logical utterances to Alexa. For example, you could create a routine called “Good morning” that triggers the Open Shades scene and starts the coffee maker. Now all you’d have to say is “Alexa, Good morning,” and you can be greeted by sunshine and the smell of fresh coffee brewing. An “It’s bedtime” routine would let you close shades, turn off lights, and more, just by saying, “Alexa, it’s bedtime.” You can imagine similar uses for routines like “Let’s party,” “It’s dark out,” or “I’m home.”

Routines can also read out information. At present, you can include any or all of your traffic report, weather update, or flash briefing—all of which might be good candidates for “Good morning” or “I’m leaving” routines.

Alexa routines let you create custom commands for a combination of actions
Lots of problems, including unsupported items and lots of duplicates

Alexa Routines don’t yet support all smart home devices and skills. Thermostat control doesn’t work yet, and you can’t control music playback (which would seem like a logical inclusion at some point). Also, SmartThings routines don’t show up as scenes when creating an Alexa routine, and Insteon devices and scenes all appear as devices, but cannot be added to routines.

Overall, the possibility that Routines offers is promising, but the implementation is only partially there. Many devices and services are not yet supported, and like groups, you’re defining very specific utterances. And true to the Amazon Alexa team’s historical record, the app implementation is pretty bad—it’s buggy, inconsistent, and confusing. We hope this evolves over time to include all supported smart home skills (possible all skills?) and allows for more language flexibility with multiple trigger phases or aliases and smarter article replacement (e.g., if you say “my” instead of “the”).

We’re eager to hear what you’re using routines for in your home. Leave us some of your favorite use cases in the comment below. In the meantime, “Alexa, let’s watch some TV!”


About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.