MUNICH, IBM Watson IoT Center and Microsoft Headquater in Munich Germany - May 08, 2018
Image: gguy/Adobe Stock

The new features announced at Microsoft Build this week show that the focus of the Power Platform is not just on turning business users into developers the way most low code and no code tools do, but also on the opportunities that come from the combination of low code and pro code: What Microsoft calls “building without boundaries.”

New features in the Power Platform

That’s why there’s a new tool for building websites that are more like apps, with features such as workflow. Built on the existing PowerApps Portal tool and storing website data in Dataverse, Power Pages allows a business team that needs an external website to roundtrip Power Pages into Visual Studio Code and build the website themselves with assistance from a professional developer if it gets popular or they need help debugging.

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Similarly, designers can use Figma to design the screens for their app and the new Express Design tool turns those into a multi-screen power app, complete with the business logic and data store written for them and ready to open in PowerApps Studio.

Business users can also design those apps using PDFs, images of their desired user interface, drawings on a whiteboard or screenshots of existing line of business applications. Draw a form with fields and a submit button and you get the data store with those fields and the code to make the submit button work.

Image: Microsoft. Draw the interface for an app on paper and Express Design builds the app itself using Power FX code.

And because it’s PowerApps Studio, the code that’s written for you is Power Fx, which a developer can work with and extend – but even after that, the user who first made the app can still work on it and make their own changes too.

Designing chatbots

For chatbots, Microsoft is merging the different low code and no code tools it has into a single bot building studio that everyone can use, adding the more powerful features from Azure Bot Framework Composer to the redesigned Power Virtual Agents authoring environment.

That kind of a unified experience is something of a holy grail, Lili Cheng, corporate vice president for business applications and emerging technologies at Microsoft told TechRepublic.

“People want it, but it’s really hard to get it right,” she said.

Image: Microsoft. The new Power Virtual Agents authoring tool is for business users and developers.

When Microsoft first came out with the Bot Framework five years ago, organizations would usually hire someone to build a chatbot for them and then move on to hiring data scientists of their own, Cheng noted.

“What we’re seeing today is partnerships,” Cheng said. “Sometimes people might start really simple and then want to integrate all their services in as they get more sophisticated. Or they might start with a developer, and then the developer leaves, and they have changes that they want to do to the conversational experience, and they want just a content editor to be able to author it… We want to make that simple for them to do so that they don’t need natural language experts.”

Some bots will be updated frequently.

“If I am a restaurant, and I have a new menu today, somebody who’s writing the menu should be able to go in and update that content if they need to,” Cheng said. “We want to make it really easy for people to update content, and then also update simple flows or correct them. Ideally, your bot is getting smarter every day as people are using it. Some of those integrations may require a developer but we want to reduce the number of times that you need a developer to improve your bot, especially once you’re up and running.”

There are still advanced features that you’ll want to hand over to developers. Bots built with Power Virtual Agents often use connectors to backend services and APIs, and it’s not always the same person working on those connections who created the bot in the first place.

“We see a lot of collaboration,” Cheng noted. “We almost always see people with different roles creating the bot.”

Multiple people can work on a bot and leave comments for each other and track progress the way you might in a Microsoft Office document.

Image: Microsoft. The new bot authoring interface makes it easier to create bots that can look up records or book appointments.

If a developer is working on the bot, they may prefer to work in code rather than in a graphical environment. Microsoft makes it easy for users to switch back and forth between the GUI and code.

That’s not just the round trip that you can already do in PowerApps nor the way you could already open bots from Power Virtual Agents in the Bot Framework Composer. With Power Pages and the Power Virtual Agents bot studio, you receive a unified service where developers can write and edit code or business users can use the drag and drop graphical tools to add adaptive cards. If you need your bot to do something that’s automated using Power Automate, you can click and open the Power Automate user interface inside Power Virtual Agents.

You can even build bots that listen and speak using Azure Communications Service and give the bot slightly different things to say when it’s typing or talking to someone.

“People don’t want to author a whole different flow for speech and text, but often what you want to say when you’re talking is different than the text that you want to see in a dialog box,” Cheng said.

Image: Microsoft. Working the Power Virtual Agents is like working in Power Automate but with bot-specific options like interrupting the bot while it’s talking.

Coding and collaboration

If you want to copy a bot for a slightly different task, being able to use code makes it very quick: You can either copy the whole code into a new bot project or just individual flows. Usually, in a graphical development environment, you’d have to go in and recreate them using the graphical tools. Now, an organisation can just share bot code in GitHub repos.

Image: Microsoft. Use rules and triggers to make interactive bots that start automatically or respond to specific events.

Similarly, if you spot a spelling mistake in the text you’ve told the bot to use that’s right in the middle of a complex flow, instead of opening all the different stages to get to it, you could just fix it quickly in the code view.

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That simplicity might help people who don’t typically code, Cheng suggests.

“I think it also will help people learn more, because they can go back and forth: They can see the overview, they can find that place that they’re looking for, but they can also understand the structure of the bot in different ways.”

With more people building bots that might talk to customers or the public, organizations may want checks on what information those bots give out. IT admins are also getting more of the same governance and compliance options for chatbots that they already have with Microsoft 365, like data loss prevention and the Customer Lockbox option to approve access when troubleshooting.

You can sign up to try the technology preview of the new Power Virtual Agents now, although some of the new features like triggers are still in development, and support for related tools like the improved Language Understanding service will come later.

Improving how your customers  interact with your company is more important than ever, Cheng suggested, which is why Power Virtual Agents integrates with Dynamics 365.

“The worst thing is when you do a lot of work, and then you have to throw it out because you move to some other tool. We never want customers to have to lose the work that they have done; we want to make it so that no matter where you start, if you start with Power Virtual Agents, then it’s really easy. You keep everything that you’ve done, and you have a more sophisticated experience.”

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