Two Years of Federal Student Aid’s Virtual Assistant Lead to Lessons Learned and a Clear Vision of the Work Ahead

What is Aidan?

An illustration of a person wearing a lgiht blue hooded sweatshirt, dark blue pants, and black shoes, leaning against a tall stool and looking at a cell phone. To the right, is a cell phone the same height of the person, with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA®, chat feature displayed on the screen.Aidan®, Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) virtual assistant, has been providing customers with responses to common questions about financial aid, loan balances, repayment plans, loan servicers, and more since December 2019. Read about our initial product development and implementation journey in our prior article.

We have learned a lot over the past two years, and it has helped us to drive improvements and expand the product to a wider range of users. We thought this would be a good time to provide an update about our takeaways from the process and what we see in Aidan’s future.

Champion Continuous Improvement Over Perfection

One thing we have learned is that Aidan must continuously improve because FSA’s program rules regularly change, our website content constantly evolves, and our users expect our interface to be current with what they experience on other customer-focused platforms.

Expansion to New Users

Aidan launched in December 2019 solely with logged-in site users. During that initial period, we learned about user needs and preferences. In May 2021, we expanded our pilot to include guest users, meaning those who are not logged in to FSA’s website, StudentAid.gov. Now that we have expanded our reach, usage has increased dramatically. To date, there have been 2.2 million unauthenticated user sessions.

In October 2021, StudentAid.gov expanded to include the FAFSA® form. As a result, Aidan became accessible to Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) applicants as they filled out the form, increasing our user base and demanding additional knowledge of our virtual assistant. Given the complexity of both the form and some of the questions we have received since that go-live, it is clear that we need to keep expanding and improving Aidan’s capabilities for this user base. Our work in this area continues, especially as FSA gears up to implement the FAFSA Simplification Act in the near future.

Our virtual assistant team has been actively updating Aidan’s designs to respond to commonly asked questions about the end of the student loan payment pause. The team has worked with FSA’s broader policy implementation group to help borrowers understand what to expect—and what will be expected of them—as they prepare to again repay their loans.

Leveraging Design Options

Based on mobile experience user research, we enhanced the mobile-first design system for Aidan on our website. Users responded immediately with significantly higher levels of satisfaction after the changes were implemented.

Additionally, in response to the single largest question we receive, we built out a more helpful flow for users who have forgotten their username or password. Wanting this to be interactive and engaging to customers—increasing the likelihood they would read the information—we introduced graphics to the response. This was our first time providing graphic, non-text-based responses.

Gathering Feedback and Data

A screen capture shows the pop-up user feedback form displayed over the Ask Aidan chat feature. At the top, is a green banner with Ask Aidan BETA in white text, and a muted sound icon. One can collapse or close the chat at the top right of the green bar. Below that a green bubble reads, give feedback about Aidan. The form has four sections on a white background. At the top is the question, What went well?, followed by five white feedback buttons with text and button outlines in blue. They are: Answered my questions, Easy to use, Helpful, Solved my problem, and Other. The third section has a Tell us more text box that is optional. It allows entry of up to 500 characters. Within the box, someone has typed: Thank you for your help! Below that box, on the right, a counter indicates how many characters were used; 24 of 500. At the bottom is a blue button with the word Submit in white text. In the top rght corner of the feedback pop-up is a dark gray x to close the box if the user does not want to submit anything.In order to collect more meaningful and actionable user responses, we developed a new design pattern, which indeed made it easier for users to provide feedback. We have noticed not only a 25-point increase in participation from users, but also significantly more helpful and actionable feedback. Users responded to the new design pattern by providing a lot more feedback to us. Now it’s our job to glean insights and drive our improvements based on that information.

What’s Next for Aidan?

Since Aidan’s beta launch in 2019, our team has continually sought to improve on Aidan’s ease of use, helpfulness, and versatility. As we mature beyond the virtual assistant’s early development, we have some clear goals in mind for our next steps. Some areas of focus for this work are:

Context-specific Experiences

Introducing new experiences to customers specific to the page they are on will help anticipate user questions and will resolve them quickly without the need for contacting our call centers.

Better Use of the Information Users Share With Us

Users ask Aidan all manner of questions, and we greatly appreciate the insight those questions give us into what our customers need and want. We are excited to improve the user experience by leveraging this data to improve our website, processes, and call centers. FAFSA applicants have their own expectations of what a virtual assistant can help them with, and we are learning a great deal about this important and substantial population of Aidan users. We will continue to build out Aidan’s capabilities based on customer demand so that users have as smooth an experience as possible when completing or updating their FAFSA form.

Ongoing Content Improvements Based on User Feedback

We are constantly analyzing what users are asking and refining our answers to be more valuable. User feedback is key to our ongoing improvements to Aidan’s helpfulness. 

Impact

In just over two years, Aidan has interacted with over 2.6 million unique customers, resulting in more than 11 million user messages. Here are just a few examples of the feedback we have received to date:

“The ease and relevance of the answer were quite impressive. [Aidan was] very informative and helpful.”

“It was easy to understand how student loans work and…the repayment process.”

“[Aidan was] very helpful in leading me to the loan simulator that I didn’t know was there. Thank you.”

“Thank you! Quick, helpful information. I appreciate it.”

Improvement is a never-ending process, and our team is continually seeking ways to enhance our virtual assistant. If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to reach out to Christine Wilkes at Christine.Wilkes@ed.gov.


Related Information

Using Chatbots To Improve Customer Experience: A cross-agency panel hosted by the Web Managers Community of Practice shares how they have used chatbots and other virtual assistants to improve customer experience. Aidan is covered by Abraham Marinez of FSA.