Nuance Nina Virtual Assistants

We evaluated Nina, the virtual assistant offering from Nuance, for the third time, publishing our Product Evaluation Report on October 29, 2015. This Report covers both Nina Mobile and Nina Web.

Briefly, by way of background, Nina Mobile provides virtual assisted-service on mobile devices. Customers ask questions or request actions of Nina Mobile’s virtual assistants questions by speaking or typing them. Nina Mobile’s virtual assistants deliver answers in text. Nina Mobile was introduced in 2012. We estimate that approximately 15 Nina Mobile-based virtual assistants have been deployed in customer accounts.

Nina Web provides virtual assisted-service through web browsers on PCs and on mobile devices. Customers ask questions or requests actions of Nina Web’s virtual assistants questions by typing them into text boxes. Nina Web’s virtual assistants deliver answers or perform actions in text and/or in speech. Nina Web was introduced as VirtuOz Intelligent Virtual Agent in 2004. Nuance acquired VirtuOz in 2013. We estimate that approximately 35 Nina Web-based virtual assistants have been deployed in customer accounts.

The two products now have common technologies, tools, and a development and deployment platform. That’s a big deal. They had been separate and pretty much independent products, sharing little more than a brand. Nuance’s development team has been busy and productive. Nina also has many new and improved capabilities. Most significant are a new and additional toolset that supports key tasks in initial deployment and ongoing management, PCI (Payment Card Industry) certification, which means that Nina virtual assistants can perform ecommerce tasks for customers, support for additional languages, and packaged integrations with chat applications.

Nina Evaluation Process

We did not include an evaluation of Nina’s Ease of Evaluation. Our work on the Nina Product Evaluation Report was well underway before we added that criterion to our framework. So, we’ll offer that evaluation here.

For our evaluation, we used:

  • Product documentation, which was provided to us by Nuance under an NDA
  • Demonstrations, especially of new tools and functionality, conducted by Nuance product management staff
  • Web content of nuance.com
  • Online content of Nina deployments
  • Nuance’s SEC filings
  • Discussions with Nuance product management and product marketing staff
  • Thorough (and very much appreciated) review of report draft

We also leveraged our knowledge of Nina, knowledge that we acquired in our research for two previously published Product Evaluation Reports from July 2012 and January 2014. We know the product, the underlying technology, and the supplier. So we were able to focus our research on what was new and improved.

Product Documentation

Product documentation, the end user/admin manuals for Nina IQ Studio (NIQS) and the new Nuance Experience Studio (NES) toolsets, was they key source for our research. We found the manuals to be well written and reasonably easy to understand. Samples and examples illustrated simple use cases and supported descriptions very well. Showing more complex use cases, especially for customer/virtual assistant dialogs, would have been very helpful. Personalization facilities could be explained more thoroughly. Also, there’s a bit of inconsistency in terminology between the two toolsets and their documentation.

Nina Deployments

Online content of Nina deployments helped our research significantly. Within the report, we showed two examples of businesses that have licensed and deployed Nina Web are up2drive.com, the online auto loan site for BMW Financial Services NA, LLC and the Swedish language site for Swedbank, Sweden’s largest savings bank. The up2drive Assist box accesses the site’s Nina Web virtual assistant. We asked, “How to I qualify for the lowest rate new car rate?” See the Illustration just below.

up2drive

Online content of Nina Mobile deployments show how virtual assistants can perform actions for customers. For example, we showed how Dom, the Nina Mobile virtual assistant, could help you order pizza from Domino’s in our blog post of May 14, 2015. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noVzvBG0GD0.

Take care when using virtual assistant deployments for evaluation and selection. They’re only as good as the deploying organization wants to make them. Their limitations are almost never the limitations of the virtual assistant software. Every virtual assistant software product that we’ve evaluated has the facilities to implement and deliver excellent customer service experience. Virtual assistant deployments, like all customer experience deployments, are limited by the deploying organization’s investment in them. The level of investment controls which questions they can answer, which actions they can perform, how well they can deal with vague or ambiguous questions and action requests, and their support for dialogs/conversations, personalization, and transactions.

No Trial/Test Drive

Note that Nuance did not provide us with a product trial/test drive of Nina. In fact, Nuance does not offer Nina trials/test drives to anyone. That’s typical of and common for virtual assistant software. Suppliers want easy and fast self-service trials that lead prospects to license their offerings. Virtual assistant software trials are not any of these things. They’re not designed for self-service deployment either for free or for fee.

Why not? Because virtual assistant software is complex. Even its simplest deployment requires building a knowledgebase of the answers to the typical and expected questions that customers ask, using virtual assistant facilities to deal with vague and ambiguous questions, engaging in a dialog/conversation, escalating to chat, or presenting a “no results found” message, for example, and using virtual assistant facilities to perform actions that customers request and deciding how to perform them. (Performing actions will likely require integration apps external to virtual assistant apps.) This is not the stuff of self-service trials and test-drives.

In addition, most virtual assistant suppliers have not yet invested in building tools that speed and simplify the work that organizations must perform for the initial deployment and ongoing management of virtual assistants software even after it has been licensed. Rather, suppliers offer their consulting services instead. (That’s changing for Nuance with toolsets like NES and for several other virtual assistant software suppliers and that’s certainly a topic for a later time.)

Thank You Very Much, Nuance

One more point about Ease of Evaluation. Our research goes into the details of customer service software. We publish in-depth Product Evaluation Reports. We demand a significant commitment from suppliers to support our work. Nuance certainly made that commitment and made Nina Easy to Evaluate for us. We so appreciate Nuance’s support and the time and effort taken by its staff.

Nina was very easy for us to evaluate. The product earns a grade of Exceeds Requirements in Ease of Evaluation.

Nuance Nina Web

Flexible and Accurate Answers to Customers’ Questions

We published our Product Evaluation Report on Nina Web from Nuance Communications this week. Nina Web is virtual assisted-service software for web browsers on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. Type a question in a text box and a Nina Web-based virtual agent will deliver an answer or will engage you in a dialog when it needs more information to answer your question. Answers are text, images, links, URLs, and/or data from external applications.

Nina Web was originally developed as VirtuOz Intelligent Virtual Agent by VirtuOz, Inc., a privately held firm founded in France in 2002. Nuance acquired VirtuOz in March 2013. Nina Web became the third member of the Nina family of customer self-service offerings from Nuance’s Enterprise division, joining Nina IVR and Nina Mobile.

Nuance has made and continues to make significant improvements to the VirtuOz IVA. A bit less than a year after the acquisition, Nina Web is stronger and more attractive virtual agent offering, earning good grades on our Report Card for Virtual Assisted-Service. (See the Product Evaluation report for the details.)

Most significantly, Nuance’s Enterprise division developers have just about completed what they call a “brain transplant” for Nina Web, replacing the question analysis and matching technology built by VirtuOz with Nuance’s Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology, the same technology used by Nina IVR and Nina Mobile. NLU combines Natural Language Processing (NLP) with statistical machine learning. NLP does some parsing and linguistic analysis of customers’ questions. Statistical machine learning, which Nuance implements in neural networks, matches customers’ questions with typical and expected “User Questions” and variations of User Questions that analysts create and store in Nina Web’s knowledgebase. Analysts also create knowledgebase answers and associate an answer with each User Question. When NLU matches a customer’s question with a User Question, Nina Web presents the answer associated with the User Question to the customer.

Analysts “train” NLU’s machine learning algorithms with User Questions and their variations. Nina Web provides the facilities and tools for initial training and ongoing refinement/retraining. Analysts add, delete, and modify User Questions as the intent and the vocabulary of customers’ questions changes to ensure that their Nina Web virtual agent delivers accurate answers. They must refine answers, too.

As you might infer by our description, NLU is a black box. Train it with a set of User Questions and it will match customer’s questions with them. The critical tasks for a Nina Web deployment are the initial specification and continuing refinement of User Questions and of answers. Nina Web insulates deployment work from NLU, from the complexity of NLP and statistical machine learning. Analysts do not specify language models or matching rules. They do not (and cannot) configure and/or customize neural network processing. Knowledge management is the focus deployment efforts. That can make for easier and faster deployment, a strength and differentiator for Nina Web.

One more thing. We mentioned that NLU is the analysis and matching technology in Nina IVR and Nina Mobile as well as in Nina Web. One set of User Questions can match customer questions with one set of answers across telephone, web, and mobile channels. Together, Nina IVR, Nina Mobile, and Nina Web can deliver a consistent cross-channel customer self-service experience, but, today, that consistency requires creating and managing three copies of the set of User Questions and three copies of the set of answers because the products are not integrated. Each Nina deploys independently of the others. But, cross-Nina integration is on Nuance’s product roadmap. An integrated, cross-channel Nina will be quite a customer service offering.

A Good Quarter for Customer Service in 3Q2013

This week, continuing our tenth year of quarterly updates on the suppliers and products in customer service, we published our 3Q2013 Customer Service Update Report. Just a reminder, these reports examine customer service suppliers and their products along the dimensions of customer growth, financial performance, product activity, and company activity. We currently cover ten leading customer service suppliers. They lead in overall market influence and share, in market segment influence and share, and/or in product technology and innovation.

3Q2013 was a good quarter for customer service. Customer growth was up and improved customer growth resulted in improved financial performance. Product activity was light. Six of our suppliers did not make any product announcements, but remember that third quarters are summer quarters. They’re usually never big for products. Company activity was also on the light side but what company action we saw was highlighted by expansion into new markets by four of our suppliers. That’s a key customer service trend and a solid indicator of customer service growth in the quarters ahead. Here’s a bit more detail:

  • On July 17, IntelliResponse and BolderView, a Melbourne, AU-based consultancy specializing in virtual agent solutions for large enterprises in utilities, banking, technology, higher education and government markets, jointly announced that BolderView had become a value-added reseller of IntelliResponse VA for Australia and New Zealand. Within the release, IntelliResponse also announced the opening of its own office in Sydney, AU.
  • On September 5, KANA and Wipro jointly announced a partnership that will apply Wipro’s consulting, systems integration, and insurance industry expertise and experience to accelerate deployments of KANA Enterprise for large global insurers and financial services providers. The companies will form a dedicated, joint deployment team to work on customer deployments.
  • On September 17, Clarabridge announced the expansion of its global operations into Latin America. A sales team will use Miami, FL offices and will leverage Clarabridge’s partnerships with Accenture, Deloitte, and Salesforce.com initially to focus on opportunities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.
  • On September 25, Moxie announced the expansion of its operations in Europe. The expansion includes opening an office in Reading, UK, forming partner ships with Spitze & Company in Denmark and IZO in Spain, and appointing Andrew Mennie General Manager for EMEA.

This expansion is a win for customer service suppliers, a win for their customers, and a win for their customers’ customers.

It’s already winning for customer service suppliers. For example, Moxie claims to have doubled its European customer base in the last six months. New customers include Allied Irish Bank and the British Army. IntelliResponse and BolderView recently launched “Olivia,” their first joint virtual agent deployment. Olivia is the virtual agent for Optus, Australia’s second largest telecommunications provider. And, Creative Virtual, a UK-based virtual agent software supplier that we’ve been covering in our quarterly reports for the past four quarters, recently announced Sabine, the Dutch-speaking virtual agent for NIBC Direct, the online retail unit of The Hague, NE-based bank. Sabine’s deployment is supported from Creative Virtual’s new Amsterdam office. See Sabine at the bottom right of NIBC Direct’s home page, below.

nibc png

Expansion demonstrates the strength and viability of customer service suppliers. Their products have reached the level of maturity and reliability that their deployment “far from home” carries little or no risk. They have the resources to open offices and hire the staff to promote, sell, and support their products in new markets. And they recognize the potential for new and additional business in those markets.

Our suppliers’ customers and their (end) customers in Australia and New Zealand, Latin America, and Europe benefit, too. Customer service applications like Clarabridge Analyze, a CEM (Customer Experience Management) app, Creative Virtual V-Person and IntelliResponse VA (Virtual Agent) virtual agents apps, and Moxie Social Knowledgebase, a social customer service app have been proven to lower cost to serve and to improve customer experiences. Companies in expanded markets that deploy these apps will have more satisfied, more profitable customers. These apps will help answer customers’ questions and solve customers’ problems more quickly and more easily.

We’ve been ready for this expansion. Language support has long been a criterion in our frameworks for evaluating customer service applications. We examine the languages that the apps support for internal users and the globalization/localization facilities to deploy the apps to end customers. Generally, we’ve found that most customer service apps can be localized to support locale-specific deployments. On the other hand, the tools and reporting capabilities for internal users tend to be implemented and supported only in English.