USCIS Website Launches New Virtual Tool

With the advent of voice activated virtual assistants used by some of the world’s largest companies, such as the Apple iPhone’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, consumers have come to expect similar features when it comes to online services. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is meeting this demand with the launching of Emma, a virtual assistant who guides users and answers questions on the agency’s website.

Emma is named after Emma Lazarus, a 19th century poet whose sonnet, entitled “The New Colossus,” is engraved on the lower pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Visitors to the USCIS WebSite can access Emma by clicking Ask a Question in the upper right corner of the page, and typing an immigration related question into the dialog box. Emma answers questions in real time and guides users to relevant USCIS webpages. [See USCIS Launches Virtual Assistant – Emma Gives Customers Another Option For Finding Answers,]

Vashon Citizen, project owner for the Emma tool, explained to the Federal Times that Emma’s appeal lies in how intuitive her features are. “If you ask Emma a question, she says, ‘Here’s the answer,’ just like you’re talking to a real person and, if applicable, she’ll actually take you to that page where you can get more information. We really see Emma as shadowing the experience of chatting with someone versus just going in and searching for that information.” He noted that the Emma tool is currently designed to answer 85 percent of the questions posed to it, but added that the software is able to learn and add to its database the more it is used. Eventually, the goal is for Emma to be able to answer over 95 percent of user questions.

USCIS officials are hopeful that Emma will relieve volume from the agency’s call center, which has the capacity to handle approximately 1.2 million calls a month. Most of these calls are basic questions that can be answered through the website. “For us, it’s about different access points,” explained Mariela Melero, head of the USCIS Office of Customer Service and Public Engagement, to the Federal Times. “We have a very diverse customer base, some of whom are comfortable talking on the phone while others want a more robust digital experience.” [See USCIS Assistant to Offer More ‘Human’ Digital Experience, by Aaron Boyd, Federal Times, 16.Nov.2015.]

Consumers in the 21st century have grown to expect technologies that provide hassle-free customer service experiences from the companies they deal with. By launching Emma, the USCIS hopes to bring this private-sector convenience and mentality to the public sector.


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