Invocable announced today that it’ll be closing its doors, just 5 months after pivoting from Storyline and putting itself behind a pay wall.

VoiceFlow are working with Invocable to offer a migration service for users wanting to port their existing Invocable skills to the VoiceFlow platform.

That’s the news, but the question is:

Why is invocable closing?

Vasili Shynkarenka, CEO, laid out the reasons why in a blog post on Medium, so I won’t rehash that.

If you don’t have time to read the full article, then Vasili summarises it as:

  • The market of a tool for creating voice applications relies on the success of voice applications, which is not there yet.
  • A voice app works well as an integration — very short, concise request that is correctly recognized and processed. “play the latest album from Eminem” is a good example. But there’s nothing to design here; all these applications are custom integrations, sometimes made by vertical players (like DoorDash skill for ordering).
  • There are voice apps that need to be designed, but NLP and NLU quality are not good enough now to support their growth. They’re like IVRs from the 90s, but on Alexa.

There are a couple of other reasons why I’m not that surprised by this news.

What went wrong?

Aside from what Invocable report, there are three other reasons why I think Invocable struggled.

  1. Premature monetisation
  2. Target market pivot
  3. Tree-based design

Premature monetisation

Firstly, without significant funding, it’s extremely difficult to sustain a startup. Invocable landed a $770k of funding in July 2018 back when it was Storyline, but that’s not a huge amount considering they were powering about 10% of the Alexa skill store at the time.

Its core target market at the time was hobbyists. Bedroom skill builders creating and publishing Alexa skills in Storyline. Some of them, like Kids Court, won competitions and cashed in on developer rewards.

It’s understandable then, that Storyline would want to cash in on their product. If it’s making money for the people using it, then why shouldn’t it make money for the founders?

However, what I suspect the team found is that hobbyists are less likely to pay $60 per month for software. Far less likely than full-time designers and agencies.

So the company pivoted into providing prototyping tools for designers.

The problem I think the team might have found is that there just isn’t enough full-time VUI designers or agencies out there willing to pay that kind of price for that kind of tool. Yet.

Maybe it’s too early.

Target market shift

The second thing that might not have helped, in hindsight, is that pivoting the company might have alienated some of their core customer base.

I have no doubts that the tool was used heavily by designers for prototyping purposes. I was one of them. But I wouldn’t have classed myself as a core user. I didn’t actually use it that much. Just in workshops and here and there for ideation.

I wasn’t someone who published a skill, nurtured a skill, updated it and had success with it.

I’m not sure of the numbers, but I’m sure there would have been a split between people publishing skills through the platform and people logging in regularly, but not hitting publish. Furthermore, I’m sure there would also be a difference between those who publish one-time skills and those who’re creating things so good that they’re getting developer rewards for it.

I’m not saying that things would definitely have turned out differently, and I’m sure the guys knew what they were doing at the time, I just wonder whether they might have picked the wrong group to hone-in on.

Tree-based design

The last thing that hinders Invocable, and many other prototyping tools for that matter, is the tree-based nature of its design. It forces you to think about your voice app as a decision tree.

With a voice experience, a user should be able to ask for whatever they want, whenever they want it and have the app respond to them. With a decision tree style design, you’re only ever going to be able to provide the answer that matches your specified next steps.

I’ve written about the Virgin Trains skill and the perils of decision tree style design recently in our 4 ways to take your voice strategy to the next level article.

Tree-based designs are fine for games and interactive stories where the assistant is in control and leading the interaction, but in situations where the user is in the driving seat, tree structures don’t work as well.

I would have thought that this would have been one of the first things Invocable would have fixed after going behind the paywall. But to my knowledge, it didn’t. Nor did it update much else, aside from multi-modal support.

Or am I wrong?

I’m not writing this with any motivation other than trying to understand how the top voice design tool of 2018 has ended up folding. And this is just my thoughts on it. Maybe others can learn from it, or set me straight if I’ve missed something.

I’m more than aware that I could be completely wrong. It’s entirely possible that Vasili and Maksim have figured out the eventual end game for all of the prototyping tools out there. Maybe they’re all destined to become interactive story or game design tools.

Or perhaps the guys are just ahead of the game and they’ve kept the tool backed-up until NLP and NLU advances to the point where they feel it’ll be useful again.

Time will tell.

For now, though, I certainly need a prototyping tool.

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