Virtual Agent...How easy!?

At the Microsoft Ignite conference in 2019, the Power Platform gained a new family member, the Power Virtual Agent (PowerVA). They follow the same type of ethos as PowerApps and Power Automate, where they intended to be picked up and developed by the Citizen Developer, someone who isn't necessarily a developer but understands the process that they want to implement.

Most communications now offer a textual method of asking questions, getting answers and general interaction, so why not place a bot on the end of this to enable your workers to concentrate on the more intricate queries? The whole point of the Virtual Agent is to give your customers and your users the best possible levels of customer service by providing them an interactive experience from the very first moment they start chatting.

So how do I get started?

Getting Started

The first thing that I need to do is navigate to the Power Virtual Agent site (powerva.mirosoft.com) and log in, and from there I can create a new bot. I need to give it a name first of all, and tell it which environment I want it to live in.
Why do I need to be conscious of which environment I want to use? If I have multiple environments in different data centres around the world, then it could be that some data centres don't currently have PowerVA available to use, particularly in the likes of the regional data centres or sovereign data centres.
Once you click Create, it will start to build your bot for you. Kudos to the UI developers in this creation screen, I love the robot being built while you're waiting!
As soon as my Virtual Assistant has been created I can immediately start chatting with it using the test chat window presented in the VA screen. As I'm nice and polite I have started by saying "Hello" ,which after a second or so, the bot responded.
Obviously at this point, the bot doesn't have an understanding of what the user may be chatting about, so beyond replying to pleasantries, there's not much else it can do. So we need to give it some topics to work with.

Creating Topics

On the left hand menu of the PowerVA screen is a topics navigation item. Selecting that will allow us to define what our topics are going to be and how the bot will respond to specific phrases.


I can create new topics by clicking + New topic at the top of the screen, and defining what the trigger phrases will be in order to identify that this is the topic we're interested in. Once you have defined your trigger phrases, we will switch to the authoring canvas to start building how you want your bot to respond to your key phrases.
In my example, I'm going to build some knowledge about Star Wars into my bot, so I want it to respond to the keyword "Star Wars" and then find out what the user wants to know. The response flow authoring area feels much like a process flow editor, where each action is added to a sequence. I can either feed information back to the user, get the bot to ask a question, refer to another topic or even launch an automation to do further processing. For simplicity, I'm going to ask the user what they want to know about.


The response to a question will automatically be stored within a variable, and once I have that, I can introduce branches to the logic. For simplicity, I have given the user a number of questions they can ask, but I could make this much more intelligent by using Power Automate to do some processing on the question before formulating a response.
There is a lot more that we could go into for the Power Virtual Agent, however at the moment we will keep it simple and leave it there. More blogs will follow on this. But for now, we want to use it! In order to that, we need to first of all Publish it by hitting Publish on the left hand side.

Publishing the Virtual Agent

Now's the exciting part! We can publish our VA and start to use it! Publishing will publish the latest content that you have added out into the publicly available version of your bot. Just like other elements of O365, until you publish you are effectively in draft mode.
Once it has been published, you can access your chat bot from a demo website which will allow anonymous users to come and start using it! Check the bot out that I created here: https://powerva.microsoft.com/canvas?cci_bot_id=a455ea33-1404-4232-88f8-a6b5a3a96fd0&cci_tenant_id=5a936f1a-3d39-40db-b8f9-29740c36300b
Feel free to go and say "Hello", and "Can I ask a question about Star Wars?". Then select one of the options available and view the responses. Very basic, and not much content there at the moment but that can easily grow.

Beyond the demo site there are many ways that I get people using the bot.

Leveraging the Bot

As I'd expect from this type of application, I can take advantage of this in a number of ways, ranging from being on the demo website through to being integrated with Microsoft Teams! Clicking on the relevant channel will give you the instructions or the code that you need to be able to use it. I'd suggest that you have a look at this page and see how they integrate. Again I'll be following up with a number of blogs to look at the various integrations.

Finally...

Power Virtual Agents were introduced as the latest member of the Power Platform family at Ignite in 2019. It is intended for the citizen developer to create a quality interactive chat bot which will respond to key words and phrases.

The whole solution is developed through the browser making it extremely portable, and also making it extremely easy to use as the online components allow you to build interactions in the same way as what you would create processes with Flow.

The bot can respond to inputs and can also ask questions, the answers being stored in variables which can then be used elsewhere or used to drive branches in the logic.

I'm actually quite excited about finding out more about Power Virtual Agents as I think once we start to pair it with other parts of the Power Platform, we'll be looking at creating some extremely powerful solutions.

I hope you found this blog useful, and as always, feedback is very much welcome.

Comments

  1. I was equally excited about seeing this being available! Completely missed it from the ignite conference and stumbled on it out of the blue. I've spent some time tinkering with the QnA maker in the past and having to hook it into Azure, along with a session last year at a Microsoft dev day, which didn't go that well - fortunately this has come along to help the 'Citizen Developer' as you say Matt. I've looked at the licensing for this and it's isn't cheap at $1,000 a month for 2,000 user sessions. Another link quoted a tenant and user license too! Hmmmm.... a bit pricey compared to putting it together in QnA maker and an Azure subscription? Something to explore further I think.

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    Replies
    1. Here's the pricing link - https://powervirtualagents.microsoft.com/en-us/#pricing

      Further technical guide here - https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/power-virtual-agents/requirements-licensing

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