How to craft your own custom voice commands for Amazon Echo's Alexa

With a little help from IFTTT, you can teach Alexa all sorts of new tricks. Here's how to get started.

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Amazon Echo is a smart speaker with Alexa, a voice-activated virtual assistant, housed inside. Ask her to read the day's headlines, stream a podcast, set a kitchen timer or play a song from the Amazon Prime music collection, and she'll get right on it.

Right from the start, we saw big potential for Amazon Echo to play a central role in the connected home. Sure enough, it wasn't long before Amazon opened up Alexa's software to outside developers and added support for smart-home gear like Philips Hue's color changing bulbs and Belkin's WeMo line of smart switches and plugs. Additional third-party integrations allow Alexa to arm your security system as you're walking out the door, or even locate your car.

Amazon Echo also boasts a channel on IFTTT, the free online automation service that lets you craft your own automated "recipes" using an "if this, then that" approach. That opens the door to use Echo with even more smart gadgets and services, and now, thanks to a cool little update to that IFTTT channel, you can use it to create your own custom Alexa voice commands, too. Here's how to do it:

Chris Monroe/CNET

1. Connect Amazon Echo to your home's Wi-Fi network.

It probably goes without saying, but you can't start automating with Alexa unless your Amazon Echo is up and running on your home network.

Fortunately, setup is a cinch. Just plug the Echo in, connect to its Wi-Fi signal on your Android or iOS device, then open the Alexa app. From there, select your Wi-Fi network and enter its password to finish the job.

2. Activate the 'Amazon Alexa' IFTTT channel.

The next step is to get your Amazon Echo synced up with IFTTT. To do so, head over to IFTTT's website and sign in (if you need to create an account, doing so is free). Click on "Channels" in the upper right corner, then scroll down and click on the Amazon Alexa channel.

To activate the channel, you'll simply need to click on "Connect," then enter your Amazon login info to authorize the integration. If you'd rather do all of this on your phone or tablet, you can do so by downloading the free IFTTT app for Android and iOS devices.

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Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

3. Create your recipe.

Now, it's time to start crafting. Click "My Recipes" on the IFTTT homepage, then click on the big "Create a Recipe" button.

IFTTT's recipe-creation tool is pretty straightforward -- you need to choose a trigger (the "if this" part) and an action (the "then that" part). For our purposes, Amazon Echo is going to be the trigger. Whenever we give Alexa a specific command, we want it to trigger a specific action.

Click the big blue "this" in the recipe to get started. IFTTT will display a list of all of its channels -- click on "Amazon Alexa" (you've already activated it, so it should be good to go). Once you've done so, you'll see a list of triggers. You get a lot of options with Alexa, but the one we want is "Say a Specific Phrase." Select it, and IFTTT will ask you what you want that phrase to be.

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Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

A couple of quick caveats at this point. You'll still need to say "Alexa" in order to wake your Echo up, and once it's listening for a command, you'll need to say "trigger" in order to tell it to listen for a custom IFTTT phrase. Therefore, every IFTTT command will start with "Alexa trigger," and then finish with your custom phrase. The "Alexa trigger" part is already assumed, so don't include it with whatever phrase you type in -- if you do, you'll have to say it twice.

Your custom phrase should be written in lowercase letters only, and you should also avoid any punctuation marks. For now, let's keep it simple and go with "my recipe" and then finish by clicking on "Create Trigger." We're halfway done -- our recipe will fire every time we say "Alexa, trigger my recipe." Now we just need to figure out the "then that" part.

Here are all of the IFTTT channels that Alexa can currently trigger.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

4. Choose your action.

At this point, you'll need to decide what it is that you actually want Alexa to do. You'll find plenty of inspiration by browsing through IFTTT's growing list of channels, which includes social media services, Web tools, and smart gadgets galore.

For this example, I'm going to go with the Nest Learning Thermostat . Amazon Echo isn't a "Works with Nest" gadget, so it doesn't have a custom-built thermostat integration of its own -- and that's what makes IFTTT so useful. It can serve as a bridge between smart home products that wouldn't work together otherwise.

The Nest channel gives me a couple of options: I can have Alexa set the heat to a specific temperature, or I can adjust the range between automated heat and air conditioning. I can also trigger the HVAC fans to circulate for 15 minutes -- which, come to think of it, might come in handy the next time I try searing steak in a cast iron pan and end up filling my house with smoke as a result (damn you, Alton Brown!).

Here's my recipe in a nutshell.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

So sure, let's go with that. When I say "Alexa, trigger my recipe," I want the fans to kick on to help clear the smoke out of my kitchen. All I need to do is select the "Turn on fans for 15 minutes" action, then specify which Nest I want to control (we've got two of them set up in the CNET Smart Home, one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs).

Your options will obviously vary depending on which action channel you go with, but for all of them, programming the desired result should be as easy as navigating a couple of drop-down menus and then clicking "Create Action." From there, IFTTT will offer a final summary of your recipe -- if everything looks good, click "Create Recipe."

5. Keep experimenting.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You've already got one custom command under your belt -- why not try a few more? You've got plenty of options, and you could even create a variety of custom commands for the same action in order to give you more flexibility. For instance, saying, "Alexa, trigger the security system on" and "Alexa, trigger the alarm to armed" could both arm your IFTTT-compatible security kit.

You can also jump back into an existing recipe to tweak the verbiage. For instance, if I decided that my "Alexa, trigger my recipe" command was too generic, I could quickly change it to something more specific and fitting, like, "Alexa, trigger my fans because i almost just set my kitchen on fire."

We'll be putting this trick to work at the CNET Smart Home to see if we can better integrate our Amazon Echo speakers with the rest of our connected home gear. In the meantime, let us know what commands you're trying out in your home, as well as the ones you'd like to see us put to the test.