Mandate: Possible – The conversational application

by | Oct 8, 2020 | Blog

Agent Project Manager receives a mandate for a conversational application. He then proceeds to select his team members, reflecting on their role in the upcoming project. Also, there is a cat. 

My Zoom meeting is interrupted by the doorbell. It rings four times, following the usual pattern.

I know what that means. Time for a new mandate.

I apologize to my fellow agents, exit the session and rush to the door.

As expected, no one is there, but I notice a small package on the ground. I pick it up and go back inside. The envelope is bare. No stamp, no address, no name, nothing.

I return to the couch, only to find Rusty comfortably installed exactly where I was a moment ago.

“Meow”, he says. Translation: “Now it’s my place, human. Deal with it.”

Fine. I sit beside him and tear the package open, freeing an old-school, handheld tape recorder. A familiar voice fills the air of my living room when I press Play:

“Good afternoon, Mr. Project Manager.”

I chuckle. Still not on a first name basis, after all these years?

“Your mandate, should you choose to accept it, is to deliver a conversational application for The Company. They wish to improve their customer experience (CX) by automating their customer service. The application must be able to answer questions with personalized responses, but also execute actions based on customer requests. It should also provide a way for live agents to take over and quickly resolve problematic conversations.”

This seems interesting. Obviously, I will need more information before I can do any planning, but I can already start to build the perfect team to tackle this project.

“The initial requirements will be forwarded to you shortly. I’m certain you will represent the Secretary to the best of your abilities in the execution of this project.”

Rusty, laying on his side, stretches his legs and closes his eyes. “Don’t worry, my friend. Your mandate is to sleep.” I scratch him between the ears, and the cat purrs his approbation.

“This recorder will self-destruct in ten seconds. Good luck.”

Oh no, not that again! I manage to reach my backyard, aim for the garbage bin and throw the recorder just as it starts to combust. That was close. Last time, I was not so lucky, and my house reeked of burned plastic for days.

Back to the couch. Rusty gives me an indignant look, his tail slowly whipping the air as I open my special binder containing the headshots of all the agents at my disposal.

I flip through the photos, looking for one in particular. I need an excellent communicator, like… There he is, Agent Business Analyst, to be the bridge between the client and the team. His acute sense of observation will serve him well, as he will have to understand the client’s business needs and rules. He will gather requirements from the client and help them define, specify and prioritize those requirements in order to determine which solution suits them best.

Throughout the project, he will leverage his comprehension of the technology and its potential applications to work with the client and the technical team to ensure that requirements are met and that the solution works as defined and as expected.

The very next photo pictures Agent Solution Architect. Yes, I will require her ability to have a global technical perspective on the project. Her deep knowledge of relevant and state-of-the-art technologies will help her advise the client, as well as the technical team, on the best technological choices to meet requirements and comply with any constraints the client may have. She will ensure that all the different pieces of the solution are considered and well-integrated with each other in a robust and effective whole.

Someone will have to define and design the conversation between the end-user and the system. That person must also be an excellent communicator, capable of interacting with all the stakeholders and members of the technical team. I turn to Rusty, who looks slightly less irritated. “What do you think?” I ask him. He yawns. Thanks for the assist, buddy. You’re perfectly right: Agent Conversational User Experience Designer (quite a mouthful. We call him CUX Designer, for short) is the perfect candidate for that. As the one responsible for the end-user experience and UI design, both for text and voice, his task will be to translate business and functional requirements into specific use cases and dialogue flows, as well as detailed functional design and messages. He will also have to validate these with the client and end-users. It will be his responsibility to ensure that the designs meet the client’s requirements, but also account for technical requirements or limitations, including automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language understanding (NLU).

Now, I’ll need to make certain that the application understands what the end-user says and correctly interprets what they mean. After all, for a conversational interface to be successful, it is essential that the user input is well understood and accurately interpreted, both globally and in context. I reach the end of the binder and start again from the beginning. Where is she? Ah, there! Agent NLU Scientist. She will work in close collaboration with Agent CUX Designer, as they represent both sides of the same coin: there has to be perfect cohesion between dialogue and NLU for the conversation to be successful. For voice applications, she will also be responsible for configuring and tuning the ASR.

Once the conversational agent is deployed and used by actual people, Agent NLU Scientist will also continue to play a critical role in tuning and improving its ability to understand what the user means.

A part of the team will need to work in materializing the requirements and designs into an actual solution that can be deployed and made accessible to end-users. This is clearly more than a one-person job. I resist the urge of asking Rusty for help again, as he’s drifting off to sleep. Okay then: I will put… Agent Software Developer, Agent Développeuse Logiciel, Agent Ohjelmistokehittäjä and Agent Softwareentwickler on that task. They are the ones who will implement the dialogue, create the access to the client’s backend systems (this is crucial if we want the application to provide personalized responses or interact with the system on behalf of the user), write unit tests and adapt existing tools like chat widgets for any particular needs of the project. Without developers, a conversational application is nothing more than a concept. Experienced developers can also provide useful feedback to designers and help create successful applications.

To make all the pieces work together, I also need, let’s see… Yes: Agent Integrator. Her broad range of skills, including software and general problem solving, will be instrumental to deliver a functioning solution adapted to the needs of the client. Her generalist approach will help her go through all the troubleshooting that inevitably occurs when integrating large and complex projects.

Nearly there. Beside me, Rusty is snoring, living his best cat dreams. I will require the valuable help of the QA Specialists Squad. They will play an essential role in making sure that the deployed application complies entirely with detailed specifications and meets all requirements. The Squad will interact with designers and developers, but also with the client, supporting them during user acceptance testing phases. They are responsible for test plans and for defining all the detailed test cases, whether manual or automated (which are essential in the context of continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD)). The quality of the deployed application depends a lot on the dedication and professionalism of QA Specialists, as they are the ones who give the final go before deployment.

Yes, that should do it. Time to properly kick start this project. But first, a little cup of tea would be great. As I get up, I notice a thick cloud of smoke rising out of my garbage bin, in the backyard. I sigh under my breath, to avoid waking Rusty. The tea will have to wait. I must deal with that self-destructing (or rather all-destructing) recorder first.

Why can’t the Secretary just send emails, like normal people?

Thank you to my colleagues Linda Thibault and Karine Déry

About the author: <a href="" target="_self">Guillaume Voisine</a>

About the author: Guillaume Voisine

Software developer, science-fiction writer and Linux enthusiast.
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