Customer Experience

Federal Student Aid’s New Virtual Assistant Offers Model for Improved Customer Service in Government

Aidan, Federal Student Aid’s new virtual assistant, gives customers instant responses to questions about financial aid, loan balances, repayment plans, where to find pages on StudentAid.gov, how to identify their loan servicers, and more, without having to contact a call center.
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Federal Student Aid (FSA) has 68 million customers, many of whom have used our call centers and may have waited to speak with a representative.

In fact, we receive about 30 million calls annually.

But some research showed that some customer inquiries could be resolved just by logging into our website, StudentAid.gov. That research also helped us identify some of the primary pain points our customers experience, including the need for them to visit multiple places and sources to get financial aid information, and being unsure of where to get the right answer to their questions.

Solving these pain points has become the core component of FSA’s Next Gen initiative, which seeks to modernize and streamline the federal student aid process, from applying for aid through making a final payment on student loans. Part of this effort is completely overhauling our customers’ digital experience, from a re-worked website to a new mobile app to a pilot to provide customers with quick access to their questions. From that, AidanSM was born.

What is a Virtual Assistant and How Did We Develop It?

As a virtual assistant, Aidan harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to inform, support, and advise customers, and helps them complete tasks online without contacting a call center. It uses natural language processing to break down typewritten words into computable properties that convert data to written language and audible speech.

When it came to developing Aidan, it was all about using research to inform our decisions. We used industry best practices, including Gartner research, FSA stakeholder and customer service representative (CSR) ethnographic research, Google analytics, social media queries, and FSA customer call data to prioritize features that would be launched in an iterative way based on complexity.

Key to our plan was human-centered design, an approach that starts from the perspective of the customer, reimagines services across a variety of touchpoints that are scalable and delivers return on investment, and implements design thinking to solve tough problems. It’s iterative, impactful, and sustainable.

This approach prioritizes customer satisfaction, which is also our top goal at FSA.

The Implementation Journey

Implementing Aidan took four stages: Discover & Plan, Proof of Concept, Pilot, and Scale & Manage.

Discover & Plan

The technical discovery phase involved evaluating various conversational platforms that would integrate with existing customer channels and knowledge bases, and which AI service could operate under federal security requirements and FedRAMP authorization. We selected Accenture’s Conversational AI Platform because it fit the requirements and accelerated development by up to 12 weeks. Then, we selected Rasa to be our cognitive AI service provider.

Proof of Concept

To see how Aidan would work, we built and tested interfaces to selected systems, designed hi-fi mock-ups, and conducted usability testing to see what would be most helpful for users. We recruited students and borrowers to give us insights on the overall user experience and key features we should prioritize. Tools like Botsociety enabled rapid prototyping of Aidan’s conversational flows and helped facilitate usability testing and design for all use cases. Conversational components such as intent, utterances of how the user may phrase a question, and text and button responses were used to create sample dialogues. One-on-one user testing focused on how customers interacted with Aidan’s chat window design, persona, and certain interactions. We also conducted 508 compliance testing and post-implementation and validation testing.

Pilot

We built, tested, and deployed the functional capabilities and the technical backbone of the platform, engaged pilot users, and created a detailed roadmap for the future. Teams manually reviewed a subset of production chat logs to determine which new utterances could be added to the model to ensure customers get the correct answer to their questions.

Scale & Manage

We’re conducting ongoing training of our bot-based analytics and feedback to ensure we’re continuing to meet customers’ needs. This includes reviewing unhandled utterances to determine content gaps and analyzing customer chat messages to identify new intents. They are prioritized in a backlog for future releases.

How Does Aidan Work on StudentAid.gov?

Currently, Aidan is available to a pilot group of customers when they are logged in to their accounts. We are continuously expanding our pilot group to learn how our customers are engaging with Aidan. To see if they are one of them, users log in to their StudentAid.gov accounts and look for the Aidan owl icon in the bottom right-hand corner of any page of the site.

Users select the icon and type in a phrase, sentence, or question, and receive an answer from Aidan.

Aidan can even retrieve personalized information about users’ loans, including their balances, servicers, and repayment plans. This makes talking with Aidan as easy as calling a representative at one of our call centers.

Aidan keeps a record of its conversations, which helps improve quality assurance, maintain an accurate log of individual requests, and identify new skills for Aidan to learn.

We also handle and store the data from interactions with Aidan securely and will never share it with third parties, so customers can feel assured that FSA is protecting their information.

Why the Name Aidan?

When we conceptualized Aidan, we generated potential gender-neutral names through crowd-sourcing and online research. The list grew based on names with relevant meanings or sounds to our mission – providing financial aid for higher education.

We spent a great deal of time getting this right, deliberating at length during this stage of the product’s development. In our market research, we heard of an example of an organization that did not consult with key stakeholders and later changed the name to better align with its strategic organizational goals. Choosing the virtual assistant name involved consulting with our leadership and legal teams to identify any potential roadblocks, naming conflicts, or pitfalls.

Aidan became the best choice to suit the FSA brand, tone, and voice. Also, we thought it was a clever word play – financial aid, Aidan – get it? The name is currently undergoing the registered trademark process at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

We also gave Aidan a persona. If we had to describe Aidan, we’d say our virtual assistant:

  • believes strongly that higher education can drive a more successful future for students, parents, and borrowers,
  • has a keen understanding of the complexities of the federal student aid landscape,
  • enjoys helping others fulfill their potential by answering common questions about the financial aid process,
  • is a skilled communicator, and
  • is adept at breaking down complicated financial concepts so they are easy to understand.

Aidan’s persona is complemented by an owl icon that symbolizes wisdom and friendliness. Usability testing revealed preference for this icon, with an average participant rating of 4.58 on a 5-point scale. It’s also a reminder to customers that they are speaking with a virtual assistant rather than a CSR.

What’s Next for Aidan?

We have big plans and expectations for Aidan, but to start, we’ve trained Aidan using data we’ve gathered from FSA websites, contact center metrics, knowledge articles, and social media queries.

Since Aidan’s beta launch in December 2019, it’s helped over 400,000 customers.

We’re constantly analyzing the questions users are asking and refining the answers to be most helpful. Your feedback is key to our ongoing improvements to Aidan. If you have questions or feedback about how we can improve our virtual assistant, feel free to reach out to Abraham Marinez at Abraham.Marinez@ed.gov.