Talk to Your Email ™

The Notion skill for Amazon’s Alexa

Alexa, ask Notion where it all began?

My wife and I are at my brother’s house to play a game of pool in his basement game-room. Craig, my brother, is one of those guys who has billions of songs from his once-extensive CD collection stored on some local media server. Well, it’s not working so well this night.

Finally, Craig gives up and marches up to the kitchen to get something. He emerges with a featureless black cylinder in his hand and a smile on his face. “You’re gonna love this,” he says. It was an Alexa Echo. Suddenly, Amazon took over as the go-to DJ for game night.

A few weeks later, my friend Ryan is also showing his Alexa off to me by asking how much gas his car has left and when a shipment will arrive. So I gave it a whirl. After Ryan left the room, I asked Amazon to order more dog food… lots more dog food. Enter the Alexa 🐶🍗 prank!

I couldn’t help but notice Craig and Ryan had something big in common regarding Alexa. They LOVE Alexa. Like… 😍… 😛… 😘… Alexa.

Alexa, ask Notion what’s the big idea?

I more or less grew up on the bridge of the Enterprise. The idea of walking into a room and asking “Computer” to answer a question or perform any task seems completely natural. I’ve been watching that since William Shatner was the acting Captain of primetime TV.

With Alexa, Amazon has introduced a platform for doing this in real life. It offers far more interaction freedom than pulling a phone out of your pocket can. And your music doesn’t screw up every time a new messages pops on your phone. OK Amazon, you’ve got my attention.

Building the Notion skill

We knew Notion is the only company ready to enable an interface capable of a meaningful conversation with your email. For years, my team at Notion has been building key foundational technology to create an intelligence layer on top of email. This is exactly what is required to deliver the type of features necessary for a useful voice interface.

So, in the 11th hour, just a few months before Notion’s big public debut, we decided to tackle the Alexa platform. It was a good decision.

Capabilities

Instead, Notion lets you ask about what’s important in your inbox. Alexa uses Notion’s personalized intelligence to tell you about just your new messages that matter the most.

This works so well, I was able to leave my iPhone in the bedroom for our entire summer vacation. I was more present with my kids because I could simply ask Alexa a quick question when passing by the kitchen. If anything at work needed my attention, I’d hear about it. I got a lot less sucked in, a lot less often than I would before when constantly checking my phone.

Notion also lets you ask Alexa if anyone is waiting on you to respond, who you’ve recently met by email, who introduced you to someone, to snooze a message to later, to lock your inbox with a pin, and even to temporarily enable do not disturb on all of your Notion-enabled devices. Honestly, it’s really best just to see the Notion skill in action…

Shortcomings of the Notion skill…

  • Sending Emails: Honestly, dictation is the biggest shortcoming. Alexa is pretty good at parsing out singular invocation commands. It’s not so good at accepting longer-form dictation and delivering the transcribed content to a skill. Therefore, trying to send emails using Alexa can sometimes be frustrating. We are in contact with the Alexa team at Amazon to see if we can help improve this in the future.
  • Notifications: Alexa doesn’t support notifications yet. Understandably, we need to be very careful on how and when your Alexa device could proactively start up a conversation with you. Eek?! However, if your boss sends you an angry email asking a question and you haven’t seen it in a typical amount of time… you might really want to hear about it, now!
  • Unbounded Speech: The Alexa skill requires a lot of fine tuning. People ask similar questions in a lot of very different ways. For now, most voice interfaces (Alexa, Siri, OK Google, etc.) require us to learn precise syntax phrasing to use them. We can alleviate this somewhat by loading up on matching phrases but that’s just a stopgap compared to developing better technology to do organic speech-to-intent recognition.

Up next for the Notion skill…

  • Feedback!: We are thrilled to welcome thousands of new Alexa users to Notion! We have so much to learn from these fantastic early adopters. Please be candid and prolific with your feedback and ideas! We are committed to make Notion work great for you on all platforms.
  • Voice Team: We are forming a dedicated Voice engineering team at Notion. This team will join our Android, iOS, Desktop, Cloud, and AI engineering teams. They will have a permanent focus on developing voice-enabled technology and interfaces. If you know (or are yourself) a talented backend software engineer interested in changing the face of communication, please send them our way!

It’s time to celebrate!

To try Notion for yourself now, check us out on Android, iOS, or Alexa.

🥊🍓🍉🍍💻⏰💡🏠🏜🚋🗿