Inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s onboard voice command system, Amazon’s Alexa was released three years ago and quickly shot to the top of everyone’s Christmas Wish Lists. Since then, voice assistant technology has transformed how consumers experience the world around them — retail, music, information, home automation, and so much more.
Much like the effect that they’ve had on the consumer experience, Appirio’s solutions experts believe interactive assistants will revolutionize the future of business. In response, we’ve created a conversational voice bot that we call NiGEL.
NiGEL, the Next Generation Engagement Layer, is an interactive mobile application that works with business applications — Salesforce, Google, Workday and more. This gives users a vision and process for interacting with their core business systems, using pure conversational interfaces — to accomplish what, today, requires complex user experiences and user interfaces.
Yoni Barkan is Appirio’s Director of Global Solutions and Innovation, and explores new ways to leverage cloud solutions to drive both the Worker and Customer Experience. Yoni’s work has been focused within the CRM space since 2003, including work on projects ranging from education, to manufacturing, to government. Yoni now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn (the land of strollers and dogs), with his two children, lovely wife, and cuddly little 85-pound pitbull. He was born, raised, and educated in California. (Go Bears!)
Roarke Lynch is Technical Lead for Appirio’s Solutions and Innovation Center. He is 8x Salesforce certified, and has been developing and integrating on the Salesforce platform for over eight years. Roarke is from the Washington D.C. area, and now lives with his wife in Austin, TX. In his spare time, you’ll find him bouldering, fostering kittens, or geeking out over math, science, and economics innovations.
Why did you decide to develop a voice/conversational solution like this?
YB: It was a bit of an evolution. For the Worker Experience Tour last year, we built an Alexa skill that enabled us to share sales and opportunity data. I described it as a “Flash Briefing” (an Alexa term for getting a news brief) for your Salesforce data. The reaction was incredible. The excitement was palpable. People responded to Alexa’s simplified approach to data — it broke down the technological barriers. From there, it was easy to make the leap to interacting with the data — not just getting information out of the system, but engaging with the system.
The other thing to mention is that we weren’t going to be satisfied with just an Alexa skill. We didn’t want to tie this solution permanently to the hardware or the device, we wanted to build something that could work with different form factors — voice, chat, bots, anything that leverages a conversational interface. So we decided to develop on Amazon’s Lex and build the mobile app as the front end. This might be an oversimplification, but Lex is the underlying framework that Alexa sits on — except it isn’t relient only on voice. You can chat directly with the bot. So while in the video (above), you see Jessica talking with Nigel, users can also chat directly with the bot while at their computer. It is remarkably easier to engage with a chatbot than it is with Salesforce directly.
RL: Conversation is part of the future for human computer interaction. Most of us think about it as a consumer tool because that is where we see it most with Siri, Google Home, and Alexa. But here’s the thing: successful companies are expecting consumer-grade experiences for their workers. We wanted to show one possible vision for how conversation will change the way we work.
How long did it take to develop Nigel? And what was your biggest roadblock in the development process?
YB: Its been in our heads for a while and there have been a few iterations of Alexa skills before we got to this point, but we have been working on this latest version of Nigel for the last few months. There have been a few hurdles, but I don’t think there were any significant roadblocks. It was a challenge to define the use case we wanted to tackle first and to simplify a complex process in a way that would work well. The exciting thing is that while our use case is simple — we are leveraging the latest technologies; AWS and Lex, Salesforce Lightning, Einstein AI, and Google.
RL: It took a few months of iteration and experimentation. We are comfortable being critical of desktop, tablet, and mobile interfaces. We’ve been working with them for years and use them daily for our own work. Conversation is different. Think about it: how would you distill a record detail page in Salesforce down to a single sentence?
It also became clear just how much ambiguity we are comfortable with when we speak to each other. We wanted Nigel to feel natural, so we needed to work out how to let him use context to know which direction to take.
Nigel works with Salesforce, Google, Workday, and other cloud platforms — how customizable is this interface? Can it be used with legacy systems?
RL: If it has an API, Nigel can work with it. Right now he knows how to work with salespeople, but he’s eager to help everyone out.
YB: That is the part that I find really exciting. By leveraging our framework, we aren’t tied to a specific application. Obviously, a big part of this is Salesforce and Google — but we can tap into a variety of different systems to streamline the process.
How do you envision customers strengthening their capabilities through Nigel?
RL: We’ve barely scratched the surface. We aren't used to thinking in conversation. Now that I’ve seen NiGEL in action, I’ve begun to realize how many tools I wish I could chat with — through voice or text — to get things done.
YB: At the end of the day, I think this is about creating more productive workers. A tool like this can make windshield time more productive, could enable workers to provide more accurate and up-to-date information, and enable senior leadership to have better insight into pipeline, bookings, revenue, and more. When we provide tools to our workers that break down barriers and give them consumer-grade technology we are enabling them to be productive.
What are some lesser-known features that Nigel users can look forward to exploring?
YB: We understand that there are going to be limitations to Voice as an interface — it's not always the best way to consume information. As we continue to explore the models for conversational interfaces, Nigel has the ability to bundle more traditional methods of data consumption into his responses. That could be visuals, like charts and graphs, a list of articles, or links to records in the system. For example, I like that when you ask for the latest on a deal, he provides the highlights and a link to the Salesforce record — in case you want to find out more, the record is only a click away.
RL: Nigel has this ability we call ‘continuation’. When you ask him a question and he’s got a lot to say, Nigel figures out how to break that into multiple responses. Most likely, you don’t want to sit back and listen to him talk for long stretches of time. He’ll tell you the most important thing first, if you ask him something like “anything else?”, he’ll move on to the next most important thing ... And that continues until he’s all out of things to say. It’s kind of like scrolling in a visual UI — giving us all a whole new meaning to ‘above-the-fold’.
Tell us something we don’t know, your favorite story, or feature about Nigel.
RL: It wasn’t something we intended when we started this project but I think Nigel, and technologies like him, are going to have a major impact on the accessibility of business to those with vision impairments.
YB: At first Nigel was just a name — to us silly Americans, it sounded like a good English butler name — we couldn’t use “Alfred” or anything like that, and “Nigel” sounded great. It was only afterwards that we realized it was a perfect acronym for our tool, the “Next Generation Engagement Layer.” I am a big fan of the word, “engagement”. I think engagement is a great way to conceptualize user interfaces — how users engage with the technology around them, and how applications like Nigel can be leveraged to provide a single user interface, or “engagement layer”, for multiple applications — therefore masking the complexity of internal systems to users.
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