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Chatbots: how they can help your business run remotely

Chatbots are a well-known concept. It is quite likely that many of us have already interacted with a bot in our everyday life – whether on social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, mobile applications, websites or even SMS. These virtual assistants have, in recent years, become very popular support tools for companies.

In fact, because they simulate human conversation – both written and spoken – they have ended up becoming the perfect business allies, whatever the industry in which they are integrated. This rise in popularity is mainly due to consumer expectations around being able to enjoy the digital experience 24/7, without having to limit their interaction with brands to opening hours or the availability of telephone lines.

At Xpand IT, we’ve been involved in different bot development projects for some years now and, therefore, we understand the importance these tools hold for any business. Utilising this valuable experience, we’ve written a chatbot playbook where we explain in detail what a chatbot is, what the different types of chatbots are, and how they apply to different business realities; without forgetting the advantages that can be obtained by implementing these virtual assistants.

Chatbots’ implementation approaches

Chatbots are tools that ensure a company is always accessible and available to answer customer requests – whether these are simple chatbots able to answer your customers’ most frequently asked questions or more complex chatbots that can utilise artificial intelligence technology throughout the interaction with the customer. We follow two different approaches for implementing this kind of digital channel:

  • Programmatic approach, building highly personalised bots according to our customer’s needs – at both functional and UX/UI levels;
  • Low-code approach where, taking advantage of Microsoft’s Power Platform and Power Virtual Agents, we can build a bot without the need for programming or knowledge of artificial intelligence.

Regardless of the implementation approach, chatbots are becoming essential tools for any business but they become even more important in disruptive times such as the crisis we’re all currently experiencing, as they can alleviate and help companies handle unexpected customer demand. This kind of customer support guarantees that no customer is left without an answer in times of need. In reality, chatbots are tools that can make a real difference in scenarios that are absolutely crucial, (e.g. helping to free contact centres, so that employees can be available to serve those who really need help).

100% digital is the new normal

It is no surprise that, at the present time, the vast majority of companies and their employees are working remotely, having been required to adapt their work methods in order to be able to remain active during this period.  This is, in fact, the new normality for an increasing number of countries and what this new normality demonstrates is that it is becoming increasingly essential that companies be prepared to keep their operations going remotely in the event of catastrophes (regardless of their nature) or any other changes in the social, political or economic context that occurs on a national or global scale.

If even before this pandemic we advocated the importance of digital channels for companies that wished to keep up with their customer needs and expectations, now – at a time when we all have to allow the world is changing – it becomes even more obvious that digital is the new normal. Companies that are digitally prepared, using appropriate channels, are best equipped to resist the economic and social impact that will be the result of the many changes we are currently going through.

Being an agile company is not just about having the appropriate knowledge or the resources to be able to understand the constant unpredictability of the markets, the needs of consumers and their changes in behaviour or even the constant technological innovation. Being an agile company means finding creative solutions, exploring new paths and new tools that allows a company to act – in a timely manner – in a relevant way during uncertain times. These capacities, not only of preparation but also of action, are what often decides the survival of some companies and not of others.

Uncertain times can become pivotal moments for any company or business, as they can often present an opportunity to reinvent internal processes that originate new ways of thinking and acting, not only within the company but also to the outside world. In our view, uncertain times are also opportunities to reinvent the way companies interact with customers and find ways to offer more value to their daily lives. This is exactly what a chatbot allows you to do.

Filipa MorenoChatbots: how they can help your business run remotely
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6 ways you can benefit your business with Microsoft Azure

Cloud computing is a term used to, according to Microsoft, “describe a global network of servers”. The cloud then, is a virtual entity that allows communication between several remote servers throughout the world and whose objective is to function as a single ecosystem. The question that arises is: what do these servers, that are spread around the world, do, precisely?

These servers are responsible for storing and managing data, running applications or other types of services such as analytics, content delivery or even intelligence, so that information is quickly made available to those who need it. Instead of accessing services and files locally through their computer, employees can access everything online, where information is accessible anywhere via the Internet.

The cloud’s goal is to allow access to computing and storage capabilities to any company regardless of their size, as long as they have a business model that can support this approach. At present, there are several cloud providers: some examples include Amazon AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.

The right cloud for your business and its benefits

It should be noted, however, that not all clouds are the same. In fact, each business is a business and each of them has individual needs. Thus, several types of clouds emerged to help each company choose the most adequate solution for their business. There are three types of clouds:

Public cloud: managed and operated by third-party providers, such as Microsoft Azure. In these instances, all resources are managed by the cloud provider;

Private cloud: computing resources are used exclusively by a single company. This cloud can be physically located at a datacentre or at the company’s offices;

Hybrid cloud: it is a mix between the public and the private cloud and where everything can be shared from one cloud to the other and vice versa.

Regardless of the type of cloud that best suits your business needs, it is undeniable that its adoption has a relevant impact in the way you run your business and also in the tangible benefits in the companies’ day-to-day operations.  Often, however, these benefits may not be clear or even noticeable to anyone who’s considering adopting cloud technology in their business. That’s why we made a list of 6 ways you can benefit your business by adopting a cloud technology such as Microsoft Azure:

1) Scalability

One of the biggest benefits that comes from adopting the cloud is scalability: with it, it becomes possible to increase or decrease resources and services you use, based on your needs or your workload. Better than that is being able to allocate or deallocate resources at any time, in a matter of minutes and wherever you are – something that was not possible in the daily lives of companies up until now. Additionally, you can choose to make this change manually or automatically, based on specific behaviours such as CPU usage, for example.

2) Flexibility

Unpredictability and rapid changes in context are, nowadays, an expected part of our existence that can have a serious negative impact for the companies if they are not prepared to respond to new circumstances in a timely manner. However, with cloud technology it becomes possible to adjust to the ever-changing reality, by adding or removing resources automatically. Imagine your website experiences an increase in traffic overnight: by taking advantage of the cloud’s elasticity, it can automatically allocate additional computing resources in order to cope with the traffic spike, automatically readjusting itself by removing the additional resources when the traffic normalises.

3) Security

When we talk about security, we don’t just think about physical security (physical access to the company’s offices or servers), but also about digital security (who can access your company’s systems and data). Cloud services providers have a wide range of policies, technologies, controls and technological skills that offer a better security, both physical and digital, than most companies would be able to achieve independently. All of these measures by cloud services providers result in enhanced security that helps ensure the protection of data, applications and infrastructure from potential threats.

4) Investment optimisation

When it comes to investment, cloud services have many benefits: not only are they based on consumption models, that is, the client only pays for the resources consumed, but they also do not have any initial costs (CapEx), there’s no need to buy or manage expensive infrastructure and, finally, you only pay for additional resources when you need them – when they are no longer need, they can be deleted. All these benefits translate into cost optimisation: in fact, Microsoft Azure displays the prices of individual resources and services so that companies can predict their investment for a given period of time based on their estimated usage.

5) Sustainability

Sustainability is on the global political and economic agenda and cloud technology adoption is a step towards a company’s full sustainability, as it is responsible for reducing the carbon footprint, it is eco-friendly and addresses all aspects of waste across the whole of the organisation. In reality, cloud services make a relevant contribution to companies’ sustainability: it encourages employees to use digital services rather than physical products. Additionally, with the cloud, resources can be allocated where they are most efficiently used. Essentially, cloud adoption helps to dematerialise our economy: thinking about companies’ sustainability means thinking about solutions that address waste in all its aspects and, adopting cloud technology allows us all to contribute to our planet’s health.

6) Competitiveness

All the benefits we listed above translate into a competitive advantage in the market your company operates in. Why? Because by adopting cloud technology, your company will be better prepared to deal with and manage workload increases more efficiently or even changes in the market context or economic conditions. Your company will be more flexible and more agile in its decision-making process and it will have better data in order to make informed decisions. Finally, by reducing costs and by better managing internal processes, your company will be able to dedicate more resources to adding value in other areas that will allow you to be ahead of your competitors.

Digital Xperience and Microsoft Azure

Xpand IT’s Digital Xperience business unit is focused, since its dawning, in developing solutions that take advantage of cloud technology and, in particular, of Microsoft Azure. From the first moment, the goal was to use platform services (PaaS – Platform as a Service) and not infrastructure services (IaaS – Infrastructure as a Service), due to all the potential that PaaS has, namely in the aspects mentioned above. In other words, practically all the solutions we develop take advantage of a combination of different components such as App Services, API Management, Cosmos DB, Cognitive Services, among others. In addition to initiatives of development native projects in the cloud, we often work alongside our customers to reengineer existent solutions, so that they can take advantage of all the benefits the cloud technology provides.

Find out how you can make the most of this technology in your specific context: get in touch with us here.

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Artificial intelligence: from buzzword to real-life application

Artificial intelligence is definitely here to stay. A technology that started out as a buzzword is now effectively in use in many different organisations and industries. Artificial intelligence shows tremendous potential not only to change the way in which organisations work, but also the way that we, users, interact with the most diverse digital solutions. The term Artificial intelligence is not exactly recent, but has, in recent years, witnessed unprecedented growth that highlights its credibility, as well as the value that organisations and individuals give to the technology with every passing year. Discover my vision about Artificial Intelligence: from buzzword to real-life application (and a great example!)

Artificial intelligence, in simple terms, consists of equipping machines and other devices with intelligence, an inherently human characteristic. The goal of this specific field of computer science is to develop devices that realistically simulate human reasoning. However, the technology doesn’t stop here. One of the great advantages this technology offers is the capacity to build models that develop and learn from the inputs they receive. It is this last feature that offers the automation potential for so many tasks already being operated by artificial intelligence systems, such as customer support services using chatbots.

AI Builder enters the scene

Presently, this technology is mainly used by technical people with the adequate knowledge for it, which in practice means that it is not accessible to everyone within an organisation It was precisely this gap that Microsoft intended to address when it launched AI Builder.

AI Builder is a Microsoft Power Platform (Power Apps, Power Automate and Power BI) capability that offers business users – regardless of their experience or technical knowledge –  the ability to use artificial intelligence technology in their applications. Even if employees do not have any programming knowledge, they can create an artificial intelligence model in just a few clicks (the first step may be using one of the templates that Microsoft provides), give it data to work with, and finally, customising the models generated. In just a few minutes, we can train the model we created, giving the system the opportunity to develop itself and learn using the information we provided. Of course, the quality of the algorithm’s answer depends on its training, but ultimately, it’s incredibly easy to start taking advantage of the technology and understand how all the pieces fit together, without the need for advanced technical knowledge, either in programming languages or in mathematical algorithms.

Use case: Retail PowerApp

As we mentioned earlier, AI Builder’s differentiation factor is giving non-technical people the ability to explore a powerful technology capable of transforming their organisations’ day-to-day life. The potential of a tool such as AI Builder becomes clear when we take as an example a supermarket that, with its many dozens of shelves, has an incredible amount of stock to manage. The shelves of any supermarket are in constant motion: products are initially placed on the shelves and, as customers visit the store, the product quantities on the shelves start to decrease. Therefore, it is necessary to replace those products so that shelves are never empty. This process can typically be based on manual tasks and that’s why we decided to understand how we could automate the whole process using AI Builder. Taking our Retail PowerApp, which as the name implies is a mobile application that was developed using Microsoft Power Apps, we then incorporated an artificial intelligence model trained to recognise certain products. And so, an employee tasked with replenishing supermarket shelves only has to open the app and, having previously defined what they were supposed to find on a given shelf, take a photo of the products. In this way, the Artificial Intelligence model will not only be able to recognise the products, but also which of those (and in what quantities) need replacements.

But the process doesn’t need to end there: so that this employee’s experience is smoother and simpler, if they find products that need replacement, they can order them directly in the app. And in the case of stock management capabilities, they can also check the order history and the stock available at a given store. All these features together enable employees with increased productivity, better information and more agility across the entire stock management and product replacement process, through a single digital experience.

More than explaining how this application works, how about seeing it in action? Meet our Retail PowerApp below.

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Microsoft PowerApps: how to transform ideas into business apps

We live in a world in which mobility is ubiquitous: there are, at this point in time, apps for whatever action we need to complete at any given moment of our lives. The majority of those apps are built with the consumer in mind and ideally, it is this end user that companies are thinking of when designing and building their digital solution. However, mobile applications are not only useful for the general public. Mobile apps, in a business context, can be critical to managing a company’s daily activities.

Business apps, as they are commonly called, are specifically designed to solve a problem within an organization. In that sense, these apps offer the possibility for companies to manage part of their business in a faster, more efficient and more productive way. However, not all business apps justify the time and investment that is required for a custom development tailored to the needs of each and every company. Since companies have to contend with budget constraints as well as time and human resources limitations, it might seem like a distant dream building an app that can suppress internal needs of efficiency and effectiveness for processes that have the potential to be automated.

Taking advantage of the entire Microsoft ecosystem, which is present in many organizations, it is possible to build an app with Microsoft PowerApps.  From an internal point of view, PowerApps have a considerable impact on business processes – they can be dematerialized and, consequently, it is possible to increase productivity and reduce inefficiencies.

On the other hand, with Microsoft PowerApps, you can enable everyone – even people with no programming or coding skills – within the organization to create and maintain the application.  Additionally, Microsoft Power Automate – a tool that complements Microsoft PowerApps – helps automate processes in different applications and services, whether it is requests’ approval, fulfilment of certain conditions (actions to be followed in case the answer is yes or no), automation of repetitive processes, etc.

In this way, these digital solutions will not depend exclusively on the IT Department and these power users, who already have the business knowledge – and guaranteeing that they are equipped with the necessary knowledge to use these tools – will be able to sustain an effective solution, based on Microsoft infrastructure, without the need of programming knowledge. Moreover, with Office 365, data circulates naturally, rather than generating silos of information which create entropies and inefficiencies. Therefore, your app is always kept up to date with real-time data.

Practical scenario: automating vacations approval

The vacations approval process is a great use case of these tools: you can automate the whole process where the first step is building a vacation request form that the employee submits for approval. Secondly, the manager receives a push notification on his mobile, in which he can immediately approve the request. The process is finished by sending an automatic email to the employee letting him know that his request has been approved. In just a few steps, we are able to automate the process that was previously dependent of the HR department.  With these tools available, we can quickly go from conceptualization to execution and in just a few minutes the employee can start planning his dream vacation instead of despairing while thinking that it will take several weeks for his request to be approved. Like this example, there are many other different use cases for Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Power Automate – these tools are a tailored solution, fully adaptable to the singular reality of your company.

Xpand IT experience with PowerApps

Xpand IT has been working with Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Power Automate since the first stages of these products’ development. As such, we recognized from the outset that these technologies could complement our own mobile development solutions, whether in cross-platform (Xamarin) or native development. In our point of view, in the context of business apps, PowerApps has an interesting value proposition not only because of the shorter time-to-market but also for allowing business users to materialize their vision in a useful tool – a tool that might justify, in the future, the development of new versions or the recourse to other technologies. For every problem there are many different solutions and we consider Microsoft PowerApps a very interesting tool to boost digital transformation in organizations.

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Apple Pay in Portugal: What changes in our daily lives

It’s 7.20 AM of a weekday like so many others.

Can you imagine what it is like having to deal with the morning chaos of preparing and eating breakfast, showering, dressing, preparing the lunchbox while trying not to forget putting on socks or at least trying not to put on two different ones. Amidst the chaos, there’s always something you forget. A day like that has everything to go well, right? Wrong.

It is obvious that on such a day, while you’re looking for your card to pay for lunch, you realise that you left the wallet at home.

It only takes two seconds after that to grasp that you just lost your financial independence and you that will have to call a colleague in order to come and save you by paying for your lunch, rather than spending the whole afternoon making up to the restaurant for the meal you enjoyed without paying for it.

A few years ago, it would be plausible to come across such a situation. Nowadays, instead of making that embarrassing call to your colleague, you can just grab your phone and pay. It’s that simple. In less than a minute the payment is complete without any friction. How is it possible, you ask? Well, Apple Pay makes it possible. Thank you, gods of technology!

But what exactly is Apple Pay? What are the implications of this new service for consumers and what does the introduction of this service means for the financial industry?

Apple Pay relies on mature technology. The service was originally launched by Apple in October 2014 in its country of origin – the United States of America – and, throughout these 5 years, Apple has been expanding the service to many other countries. In fact, right now, more than 50 countries support Apple Pay and we can confidently say that Apple plans to continue the evangelization and implementation of this service in more countries.

From June 2019 onwards, Portugal became one of the countries to support Apple Pay. Crédito Agrícola, Revolut, N26, Monese and, more recently, Moey! were the first banks to offer this service in the country and we were one of the first companies to implement the technology.

Xpand IT was one of the partners that accompanied the implementation process of Apple Pay within the Crédito Agrícola mobile app from the outset and had to assure the creation of a simple and intuitive navigation flow, so that adding cards to Apple Wallet through the banking app would be fast, easy and frictionless. Together with Crédito Agrícola, Xpand IT has guaranteed that the implementation passed all security tests and all demanding Apple requisites. Not less important, Apple’s intervention in the implementation process highlighted the necessity of having a partner whose sole focus would be the user experience – to assure the experience was coherent and that it was capable of giving life to this new payment method.

How, then, does Apple Pay work? Getting back to the example above, after the initial setup in which the user is able to add cards in the Apple Wallet app, you can now use just your phone to make contactless payments. Payment terminals are still the same – in case they already accept contactless, the user needs only to open the Wallet app, use TouchID or FaceID for authentication, touch the phone to the POS and voilá, that’s it – transaction completed.

There’s no need for wallets or physical cards that only create obstacles to this process – a process that should be fast and painless. As an additional security measure, if the amount is higher than 20 euros (value determined in Portugal), the user will be asked to confirm the transaction through a PIN.

The truth is that this service is a game changer, as it offers complete convenience to the payment act – you pay for your shopping in any channel, be it online, physical or even in mobile apps by using the devices that are already part of your life (iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple Watch), without any complications or waste of time. On the other side, this payment method offers more security: not only because your card data is safely stored through the virtual representation of the card (token) – this token can be deactivated or activated at any moment in the app and is independent of the physical cards – but also because in order for the user to authorise a transaction, a biometric authentication is required. This is one of the reasons why this service has been widely accepted in different economy sectors and also why it has been having such a considerable impact in the payment industry.

I know you must be thinking that not all is roses with this service and that might be true. There’s something none of us can escape – we still need to have battery on our phones in order to assure that our cards are accessible and that payments are just a touch away.

I can now leave my wallet at home without any concern. I just have to make sure that my phone doesn’t run out of battery. If that happens, there’s no technology that can save me.

Maybe in a few years’ time we will be able to make a payment just by authenticating our identity without the need of a phone. But that’s something for another blog post!

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Power Platform World Tour: Our experience

In the last week of August, Xpand IT has travelled once again to London where on the 28th and the 29th took place the first European stop of the 2019 Power Platform World Tour. We departed Lisbon with some expectations we hoped would be fulfilled: we wanted to understand this platform even better – a platform which is experiencing an interesting growth – and also get a glimpse into its future.

For those unfamiliar with Power Platform, this is a platform that brings together 3 Microsoft products that together bring to life a platform that promises to streamline and promote the Digital Transformation of organizations. PowerApps, Flow and PowerBI are tools that enable the digitalization and automation of internal processes and have enormous potential to transform the way companies manage their processes and make their decisions. With these tools, companies will be able to make informed decisions with agility and with technology-based processes, therefore taking advantage of the benefits that come from it.

The Event

Getting back to London, though… the event offered us two full days of interesting content where it was possible to meet the growing and enthusiastic Power Platform community, to explore the challenges that different industries are tackling with PowerApps and, no less important, to get a dose of inspiration from the showcased solutions and how various companies are already taking advantage of these technologies. With The Shard as background, the event was a community get together and a genuine sharing of experiences…in fact, one of Microsoft’s most powerful messages is the Power Platform’s simplicity of use. When they say that everyone can build an app using PowerApps and Flow, it’s true. With these products, both developers and business users have the right tools and are empowered to get better business results by building apps. This is not a tool that can be used to solve every problem. However, it is undoubtedly possible to use these powerful technologies to address some of the challenges companies face nowadays.

One of the highlights of the event was being able to hear first-hand what Microsoft has to say about these products’ evolution and what the future holds, especially with regards to enhancements and new features that will be available to all users from October 1st onward. The AI Builder is an example of the new features we can count on: capabilities such as binary classification, object detection and form processing make it easier to include Microsoft’s cognitive services in enterprise applications and providing them with a layer of intelligence that up until now wasn’t within the reach of PowerApps applications. The platform includes a whole set of new features – more than 400 in the last 6 months according to Microsoft – that will allow more and more citizen developers to emerge.

Another of the highlights of the event was related to how these initiatives should be managed within the company in partnership with the IT department. Even though there’s a lot of advantages in putting the power of app creation in the hands of any user – in fact, these users are even now using Excel or Access to solve many problems – the company needs to guarantee that the theme of Enterprise Management is properly addressed. More importantly, we need to look at these initiatives in a more programmatic way: their adoption will have to be promoted continuously so that they aren’t regarded as one-shot projects only.

We also confirmed our suspicions related to the unprecedented growth of the platform: 700% growth in production apps and more than 2.5M of monthly active developers in the Power Platform. These are surprising numbers that show us that the low-code market is growing: Gartner and Forrester have named Microsoft PowerApps as market leaders. It’s safe to say that the future is looking bright for PowerApps and the rest of the Power Platform.

In Conclusion

In short, you can expect more news about PowerApps very soon. The event was an excellent opportunity to witness how companies are innovating internally and to learn from the many experiences of the community. We have returned to Lisbon with the certainty that the PowerApps value proposition for internal empowerment scenarios is very interesting and, in this sense, can complement our mobile development offer whether in cross-platform (Xamarin) or native development.

Strategically speaking, our vision for customer facing apps doesn’t include low-code tools. However, we see potential in low-code tools when we focus on internal and Employee Empowerment scenarios. More news coming soon!

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