Computing Profession

Your Virtual Robot Assistant

James, a virtual robot assistant focused on quality assurance.
A virtual robot assistant provided by a cloud services company is helping businesses with quality assurance by verifying the online customer experience.

Cloud services provider dinCloud has launched a full-service virtual robot assistant that will provide quality assurance and monitoring of e-commerce websites, applications, and business processes.

Dubbed "James," the robot will complement dinCloud's existing cloud services and is geared at software quality assurance (QA) managers, QA analysts, software delivery managers, IT managers, e-commerce managers, website administrators, and help desk personnel, the company says.

The market for robotics is seeing tremendous growth, and worldwide spending on robotics and related services will more than double by 2020, growing from $91.5 billion in 2016 to more than $188 billion in 2020, according to market research firm IDC.

While there are a lot of automated management solutions, James has "unique capabilities that set it apart from automated management competitors,'' mainly in its ability to work with a wide range of different applications, devices and services, says Richard Ptak, managing partner at IT research firm Ptak Associates.

When compared with a simple chatbot, a program designed to interact with humans primarily online, James is more sophisticated, Ptak says. "In our internal discussion in reviewing the product, we thought of many more application areas where James could prove invaluable. It can be applied to virtually any situation where a service is being delivered."

James is being used by one of dinCloud's customers, which has an online fashion accessories business and uses a software-as-a-service ecommerce platform and third-party payment provider for checkout. The customer relies heavily on those external suppliers to make sure everything is running smoothly, says David Griffith, an innovation consultant with dinCloud. The company's support team would receiving calls from customers if something wasn't working properly, but was finding "often, if things are running, they don't see problems between apps or during the step-by-step [site navigation] process,'' Griffith says.

If customers encounter hiccups, they may end up abandoning their shopping carts and leaving the site, and the company wouldn't know the reason why. That's why it brought in James to simulate the exact process the buyer would take from start to finish, Griffith says. The robot logs in every 15 minutes and reports on its findings, including how long it takes for the payment process to go through.

"Unless you have a full-time employee checking this on a 24/7 website, no one will know for sure, and many customers will not call, so you're left with uncertainty on whether the website is working as it should,'' he says.

The retailer discovered that "there are issues on almost a daily basis that no one knew,'' Griffith says.

"What's really powerful about this is even with monitoring tools in place, companies often don't monitor all aspects of the user experience," adds Ali Din, dinCloud's general manager and chief marketing officer. Even if the software isn't down, there could still be a glitch somewhere that is affecting the user experience or worker productivity, he says.

None of a company's proprietary data is captured by James; only the specific error information is logged and sent, Din stresses.

James comes with a dashboard so a customer can look at performance data in real time, he says. It can be installed as an agent or bot in a virtual machine hosted by dinCloud, or it can run on-premises. When delivered as a service, dinCloud will configure the tests and monitoring, set up the reports and dashboard, and deploy the robot.

The robot will not replace the work an employee does, Griffith says, "because what job do you know where a human is constantly logging in and doing quality assurance?" James is "simply adding value to the ever-more-complex IT [processes] by checking that critical services are performing for customers and staff." Companies spend a lot of money optimizing business processes, he adds, "so you could make the argument that you should have some system to ensure they are performing to a degree that is satisfying those business processes."

The robot got its name after dinCloud conducted a contest on social media. James, Din says, represents "a good old American boy."

Pricing is based on the functions a company wants measured, Din says. There is an initial setup fee, and the standard rate is $5 per hour for capturing up to five measurements, over 20,000 interactions per month, and working a minimum of 720 hours, according to dinCloud.

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.

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