AWS Public Sector Blog

Supporting those affected by sight loss with Alexa and AWS

This is a guest post by Lea Hampton, senior product manager at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

At The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs), we provide a variety of services and support to anyone affected by sight loss, their friends, and their family. Our aim is to empower those affected by sight loss to live actively, live independently, and live well.

A major pain point for people living with sight loss is access to medical information, advice, and guidance. Many described experiencing a “cliff edge” after receiving their initial diagnosis. They feel as though they are alone and unsupported. At Guide Dogs, our mission is to give them access to information and support to make a positive impact on their well-being, self-confidence, self-esteem and ability to function with loss of sight. Voice assistants powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) allow our organization to support our communities and enrich their quality of life.

Using voice technology to enable our community members

Using AWS, we converted our guide dog owner manual into an accessible, on-the-go learning experience in the form of an Alexa skill. Now, our users can ask their phones or Amazon Echo devices questions on-the-go about their guide dogs and get an answer within three seconds. This has enabled us to reduce the printing of our guide dog owner manuals, and it has drastically helped our stakeholders access the critical information about how to care for their guide dog. In fact, in the last year, there have been more than 1,200 users of the Alexa Skill. The app has received over 2,000 questions about our organization and guide dogs, and we avoided printing nearly 500 training manuals, each with over 80 pages.

Unlike most voice-activated knowledge-bases that serve canned answers to canned questions, we created a topic structure that allows dynamic questions and answers to have robust follow-up options. This helps our users explore and discover content they might not have known to ask for.

From community feedback to voice-powered application features

We developed this technology in several stages. First, we gathered user data and held internal stakeholder meetings to develop a clear vision for our customers’ journey. Workshops with our community members helped our team understand the challenges and pain-points throughout the guide dog owner experience, from the beginning when they are applying for a new dog to the end when their dog retires.

Then, we invited users for tests of the hypothetical customer journey. We conducted these user tests throughout the development of the application. The users’ input was invaluable to make sure that the prototype we created addressed the real needs of our community. The feedback from these test users and the customer journey “storyboards” that we created informed the creation of the chatbot and Alexa conversation flows. We combined these insights with the digital knowledge-base that we created on AWS to provide a seamless customer experience.

Creating a single knowledge-base that could drive accessible conversations via voice or text, on any device, was one of our biggest challenges—and achievements. We developed the knowledge repository with AWS QnAbot which, out of the box, provided us with a chatbot and Alexa Skill solution using natural language processing (NLP). Within this solution, we used Amazon Polly to turn text into lifelike speech using deep learning technology, Amazon DynamoDB to store our specific information and guide dog-related content, and Amazon Kendra and Amazon Comprehend, which use machine learning and natural language processing to connect the user to the right information in our database.

Additionally, we use Amazon QuickSight to gain incredible insights on the chatbot’s usage patterns and Alexa Skill. As an example, we capture and analyse the “no hit requests,” which are the questions that do not solicit automatic answers. These unanswered questions help us continually improve our answer bank to make sure we continue providing the requested and relevant information to our community of users.

Next steps

We continue to expand on the functionality and content of our chatbot and Alexa Skill. AWS provides us with a flexible infrastructure that is custom tailored to meet our needs. Working closely with the AWS team also enabled this project to be successful for our team and beneficiaries. We can now serve more individuals using less resources including time, money, and paper manuals. Using AWS technology, Guide Dogs hopes to continue to improve the lives of all those affected by sight loss.

Learn more about AWS for nonprofits

Nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world are increasing their impact with AWS. AWS offers multiple programs for nonprofits to get started on the cloud, including the AWS Nonprofit Credit Program, which helps organizations offset the costs of implementing cloud-based solutions. Apply for the AWS Nonprofit Credit Program to start your journey with AWS.

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