We often get asked by digital workplace teams about different tools and what they do, particularly relating to Microsoft 365. We try and cover the common answers through an article here on the Content Formula blog. This time it is the turn of Power Virtual Agents, a relatively new tool within the Microsoft Power Platform.
What is Power Virtual Agents?
Power Virtual Agents is a newer feature within the Microsoft 365 Power Platform that provides a ‘no-code’ interface to allow teams to create chatbots that can be deployed across multiple channels. Because the Power Virtual Agents tool is a no-code solution, it means ‘citizen developers’ now have the ability to build relatively sophisticated bots, empowering non-IT professionals to continue using Power Automate to design apps without relying on the IT Department.
Power Virtual Agents was originally part of Microsoft Dynamics but has been worked into its own separate capability. It was announced in late 2019 as a new addition to the Power Platform suite that is available with some Microsoft 365 licences. There are various other licensing options to explore, including Power Virtual Agents being available on a standalone basis.
How it Works ?
At the heart of Power Virtual Agents is a powerful authoring canvas that allows non-IT people to start building bots. This is very well-designed and intuitive, making bot design a realistic option for power users and citizen developers.
The authoring process works something like this. Let’s say you are designing a bot that is going to appear on your intranet to answer questions from employees; within Power Virtual Agents you define a list of the topics that you want the bot to answer questions about. One of these might be “Office Hours” so customers can query the opening hours of your different locations. Realistically, your bot will have multiple topics that are defined within Power Virtual Agents.
Each topic will have a list of defined trigger phrases that will illicit some kind of response from the bot. Here, the matching trigger phase is based on a percentage score so the matching does not need to be exact, but it is easy to add multiple trigger phrases for each topic.
From the trigger phrases, the user can then define each step of the bot and the related conditions. There are several options for each step, including the ability to display a message and answer a question. You can also introduce branching to give different options dependent on the responses from the user. For example, the bot can ask a question – “For which office do you want to know the opening hours?” – and offer five choices, with a response then defined for each choice. These are then presented as different branches within the authoring canvas.
The Power Virtual Agents authoring canvas also allows you to add more sophisticated functionality at each step, turning a simple conversation flow into a more complete process. These additions include the ability to add “Calls to Action”, trigger workflows that leverage Power Automate, retrieve information from different systems including SharePoint lists, and the ability to transfer to another topic within the tool. This means that you can use the tool to create bots that help employees to complete simple transactions, such as log an IT support ticket or request annual leave. Here, the integration with Power Automate and a library of connectors to other systems is very powerful.
Another feature is the ability to hand over to a live agent to take over the conversation. This can be particularly powerful in IT and HR support for internal-facing bots authored using Power Virtual Agents, or customer support for external-facing bots.
A robust capability of Power Virtual Agents is strong analytics straight out of the box that shows how users are interacting with a topic, the volume of use, completion and abandonment rates and so on. A well-designed analytics dashboard down to the topic level allows authors to make changes such as adding new trigger phases.
Power Virtual Agents also allows you to easily post your bot to multiple channels, including your intranet or website, Microsoft Teams, and even Cortana with speech activation.
Why is the Power Virtual Agents Tool so powerful?
Power Virtual Agents is an exciting tool that effectively democratises bot design across the enterprise. There a number of standout capabilities that make it particularly powerful.
1. Great design to enable input from subject matter experts
We love the authoring canvas design – it is extremely easy to use. This is really important as it allows subject matter experts to directly author and configure a bot. Their input is critical when it comes to creating specific solutions that require strong domain or expert knowledge; in our view it not only creates better bots, but also engages non-IT people to continue to make improvements and directly configure the bot themselves.
2. The tool is very flexible in driving continuous improvement
Good bot design is very iterative in its nature; you need to tweak and improve the bot to make it more effective, ideally through a process of continuous improvement. The design of Power Virtual Agents reflects this; the authoring canvas is very dynamic and easily allows you to make changes and additions. The analytics are in very easy reach to inform the design changes you need, as you can effortlessly switch from analytics screen to authoring canvas (and vice versa) in one click.
3. The integrations drive the power and value
A clear advantage of Power Virtual Agents is the easy integration with the rest of Power Automate and the Microsoft 365 suite as well as other systems, often out of the box. The handing off to live chat with an agent receiving the history of a conversation is a strong feature, and the ability to post to multiple channels supports good adoption. These features allow the creation of bots to improve business processes that have real value.
4. You can still involve your developers
Even though Power Virtual Agents has a no-code interface targeted to non-IT professionals, your software developers can still use their traditional coding environments to work with Power Virtual Agents. This gives IT functions the option to build a bot, and then hand off ownership and management to non-IT professionals.
What can I use bots for?
You can use bots for a variety of different use cases, both internal- and external-facing. We recently covered six bot capabilities and six bot use cases for your business, that include:
HR and IT helpdesk employee self-service, for example allowing users to complete simple transactions and find out information
HR or IT helpdesk automation, where repeatable task carried out by the helpdesk can be automated, such as unlocking a mobile phone
Enterprise or intranet search, to help users carry out advanced searches using a guided conversation rather than a more complex search interface
Learning and development, to nudge people to take training or to connect them to learning opportunities
Change management, providing information for upcoming organisational changes
A digital assistant to support new hires with the employee onboarding process.