Alexa Notifications and Interruption Model

Upon joining the central Alexa Voice Design team in late 2015, my first order of business was to tackle a complicated systems design problem: how could we adapt a primarily single-threaded, voice-forward, reactive experience to allow proactive notifications? There was a great deal of caution surrounding the effort, as our product has been invited into homes, and we did not want to violate that trust.

Further complicating matters was the as-then-unannounced Echo Show, which completely changed the interaction paradigm. While Echo had not supported large-scale multitasking, the Echo Show introduced the concept of navigation and a sort of back stack. The Notifications patterns were also required for third party Alexa Skills partners, but we had to expose them in a way that prevented abuse of the Alexa system’s trust within the home.

I drove the design side of this engagement from my start on the Alexa team until my departure in late 2016, with Carl Mekala as my product management partner. The feature was announced in Spring 2017, in tandem with related feature Communications and the release of the Echo Show.


My work on the Notifications feature broke down into several key efforts:

  • An updated Activity Model and Interruption Model for all Alexa devices. (The previous interruption model was defined for Echo only.)
  • Notifications VUI (all retrieval intents and delivery prompts
  • Do Not Disturb VUI (all control intents and behaviors
  • End-to-end storyboards that incorporated VUI, audio, and visuals in context for approvals through SVP

In addition, I worked very closely with partners on the visual design and sound design side, particularly sound design. We collaborated to identify when sounds would be appropriate, when sounds should replace voice prompts, and how to delicately interrupt without being too disruptive in the home. We also worked hand-in-hand with the Communications domain, whose calling and messaging features would need to be consistent with the overall Notifications design as appropriate.

This work spanned over a year due to the high number of stakeholders, hardware release cycles, and the complexity of the implementation.

What is an “Interruption Model”?

This was the term we used to describe a design taxonomy for the sound, visual, and VUI behaviors that apply when a new event occurs on the device while in use. For example, on the iPhone, you could say the interruption model offers a few basic patterns: toast notifications, tray notifications, and app badging. Each of these is applied in specific circumstances.

Our Interruption Model took the form of a matrix: on one axis we mapped the possible activity types (playing media, etc.) and on the other axis we mapped the types of interruptions that could occur (i.e, incoming call.) Since there are dozens of individual intents and events, we had to first develop a coherent activity model to which all existing Alexa actions could be mapped. For example, “passive media” as an activity type that applies to music, video, or podcasts. Both the Activity Model and the Interruption Model required intensive vetting across dozens of stakeholders on multiple domain teams.

Design Samples

Design samples forthcoming upon full feature release.

More Information

Documentation and responses to the feature will be linked here once made public.

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