Software with Empathy

One of the most celebrated technological aphorisms comes from Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To its panoply of snowclones I would like to offer the following humble addition: "Any sufficiently empathetic software is indistinguishable from therapy."

But empathy and kindness are quintessentially human qualities, standing in stark contrast to the inexorable logic of computer code. What does it mean for software to display empathy? And how can a virtual service assistant show kindness and understanding? In the time-honored tradition of science fiction, we shall enunciate three characteristics that the ideal virtual service assistant should possess:

1. It should accommodate common errors while searching.

Nobody is perfect. President or pauper, we all make mistakes while searching--and hate the reprimand of abortive searches because of them. Internet search engines recognized this issue early. Hence the "Did you mean" (DYM) feature.

But Internet search engines have the luxury of volume that is not available to enterprise search engines. The statistical methods used to create a DYM feature for the Internet cannot be replicated in the enterprise. Nevertheless, there are means through which enterprise search engines can accommodate its users and provide similar guidance.

In this era of the pandemic, searches related to Zoom have become quite common on our platform. So have some comical misspellings of the name:

· zooom laptop video not working

· cant intall zomo plug in

· where can i dl zume

To a human, the corrections for the above queries are obvious—even for the last one, which a human would interpret correctly with a high degree of probability. As a result, a good virtual service assistant should devise ways to apply the corrections automatically before serving up its responses.

In my next blog post I will discuss algorithms for tackling such queries when the search volume does not permit the abstraction of statistical patterns.

2. It should automate chores.

In this industry, the automation of password resetting has been put forth as the prototypical example of this category. And you can be assured that Gaspardesk already does it!

Now imagine a more complex scenario. Alice visits the self-service portal and enters a request for an item. Bob is the human agent responsible for fulfilling the request. How might a conversation between them proceed?

One possibility is this brief exchange.

Alice: I need paper for my printer delivered to my home office.

Bob: Great. That item is cheap enough not to require approval. I will go ahead and place an order for delivery to your address.

A second possibility might require a single approval.

Alice: I need a new mechanical keyboard.

Bob: That item is over the limit for unapproved purchases set by the company. I will create a request and send it to your manager. Upon approval of the request, the item will be sent to you.

A third possibility is more complex still.

Alice: I need a new keyboard.

Bob: Have you got a specific one in mind?

Alice: Not really. Just something of a high quality that is easy to carry around.

Bob: I see that you are a JavaScript programmer with a ThinkPad. I will pull up information about the most popular compact keyboards for programmers and send it to you. After you have made your selection, I will determine, based on the price, whether to seek approval first or to place the order directly.

An ideal virtual service assistant should try to automate as many of these different interactions through custom workflows. It is a challenging goal--without a doubt!--but there are architectural patterns that facilitate such goals in a sound, systematic, and extensible way.

In a future blog post I will examine some of these architectural patterns, the data required to build such features, and the algorithms known to work well.

3. It should treat all of its denizens as first-class citizens.

Have you ever been denied entry into a night club for not being "cool enough"?

Well, Gaspardesk cannot help you with that problem yet! But we strive to provide an experience that does not discriminate against any category of user, be it the cool superuser who knows everything, or the frustrated and trepidatious newcomer renewed by the thought that help is at hand.

This parity of experience does not imply that everyone has equal access to every feature of the platform. But if a particular set of internal articles can prevent new tickets, then superuser and user should have equal access to the intelligence constructed from those articles. If interaction through Slack or e-mail is permitted for superusers, then it should equally be permitted for users. If special system-wide alerts and updates are sent to superusers, they should not be kept from users.

You are a valuable member of your company, no matter your role in it. No virtual service assistant should be allowed to suggest otherwise!

And you will always be a welcome guest at Gaspardesk!

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