Building conversational forms with FormFlow and Microsoft Bot Framework – Part 1

Forms are common. Forms are everywhere. Forms on web sites and forms in apps. Forms can be complicated – even the simple ones. For example, when a user completes a contact form they might provide their name, address, contact details, such as email and telephone, and their actual contact message.  We have multiple ways that we might take that information, such as drop down lists or simply free text boxes. Then there is the small matter of handling validation as well, required fields, fields where the value needs to be from a pre-defined set of choices and even conditional fields where if they are required is determined by the user’s previous answers.

So, what about when we need to get this type of information from a user within the context of a bot? We could build the whole conversational flow ourselves using traditional bot framework dialogs, but handling a conversation like this can be really complex. e.g. what if the user wants to go back and change a value they previously entered?  The good news is that the bot framework has a fantastic way of handling this sort of guided conversation – FormFlow.  With FormFlow we can define our form fields and have the user complete them, whilst getting help along the way.

In this post I will walk through what is needed to get a basic form using FormFlow working.

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Making Amazon Alexa smarter with Microsoft Cognitive Services

Recently those of us who work at Mando were lucky enough to receive an Amazon Echo Dot for us to start to play with and to see if we could innovate with them in any interesting ways and as I have been doing a lot of work recently with the Microsoft Bot Framework and the Microsoft Cognitive Services, this was something I was keen to do.  The Echo Dot, hardware that sits on top of the Alexa service is a very nice piece of kit for sure, but I quickly found some limitations once I started extending it with some skills of my own.  In this post I will talk about my experience so far and how you might be able to use Microsoft services to make up for some of the current Alexa shortcomings. (more…)

Using speech recognition and synthesis in Windows 10 to talk to your bot (and have it talk back!)

In my previous posts I have shown how we can use the Microsoft Bot Framework to create smart, intelligent bots that users can interact with using natural language, which is interpreted using the LUIS service (part of Microsoft Cognitive Services).  The bots that we can create using these tools are really powerful but, in most cases users are still typing text when communicating with the bot.  This is perfectly ok in most situations, but it would certainly be fitting for some requirements to actually be able to allow he user to just talk to the bot using speech and have the bot respond in the same way. There are examples of where this can be done on the existing bot channels already, such as users using the Slack mobile app with a voice recognizer function so you don;t have to type your text, but what if we wanted to bake this into our own app?  In this post I am going to provide some basic code that allows a user to converse with a bot using speech in a Windows 10 UWP app.

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Give your bot some ‘manners’ with the BestMatchDialog

As a follow up to my earlier post which introduced the new BestMatch Dialog, now available via NuGet. One of the best uses for the BestMatch Dialog, and the reason I created it in the first place, is adding ‘manners’ to a bot. i.e. being able to respond to those common things that people say that fall outside of the usual conversation you would handle with your bot. Therefore this post will focus on and show how to use a BestMatch Dialog as a child dialog to respond to general messages like “hello” and “thanks”.  It is amazing what a huge difference handling these sorts of messages can make and how much more natural talking to your bot will feel for your end users. (more…)

BestMatchDialog for Microsoft Bot Framework now available via Nuget

Recently I have been developing a number of bots using the Microsoft Bot Framework, with the LUIS service to allow users to use natural language to interact with them.  One thing that struck me when we released the bots to a wider user base was just how polite everybody was towards them.  The bot was receiving messages like “hi”, “how are you?”, “thanks” and “bye bye” – the only problem was that the bots didn’t know how to deal with these messages.  Sure, they could deal with a ton of more complex messages / intents using LUIS, but wasn’t able to ‘understand’ and provide such common responses.

I set out to think about how I could solve this problem in a re-usable way and whilst doing so I ended up looking through the open source code for the Bot Framework on GitHub to see how dialogs like the LUIS dialog worked. Then, whilst browsing I came across some code in the Node section of the Framework that handled the matching of Intents within the IntentDialog – a few hours later I had my first version of the BestMatchDialog. (more…)

Integrating a LUIS natural language model with your bot using LUISDialog

The LUIS service, part of the Cognitive Services suite, aids you with the task of natural language processing.  In my last post I created a natural language model using Microsoft’s LUIS service and in this post I am going to show you how to hook up the model I created, into a bot created using the Bot Framework and a special type of dialog class, the LUIS Dialog.  If you haven’t got a LUIS model already, go back and work through the last post, it really doesn’t take long.

Update: I have now published a quick video overview of LUIS including how to create your first model.

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Using the Microsoft LUIS service to build a model to understand natural language input

LUIS, the Language Understanding Intelligence Service, is a part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite.  If you are reading this and you don’t yet have a clear understanding of what Cognitive Services are, head over and read my introduction to Cognitive Services before you continue.

During this post I will introduce you to what the LUIS service is and show you how to build a model to aid in natural language understanding in your applications.

Update: I have now published a quick video overview of LUIS including how to create your first model.  (more…)

Bot Framework Typing Activity – Let users know your bot is responding (and know when they are too)

In the recent major update to the Microsoft Bot Framework (v3), a new type of Activity was introduced, a Typing activity.  This Activity type sites along side others, such as Message activity which is the most commonly used activity to represent most communications between a bot and a user.

So, what is the Typing activity for and how do you use it? (more…)

What are Microsoft’s Cognitive Services?

Some things are just hard. As a developer, tasks such as recognising a face within a photo or understanding speech are just things that, in general, you cannot do on your own own. These sorts of capabilities though, could significantly transform the experiences you offer in your apps.  Imagine being able to write a kiosk app that instantly knew who the user was just by seeing their face or being able to have a user ask a question and understand what they were asking without writing reams and reams on limiting regular expressions.  Some time ago at Microsoft a project got underway to solve this problem, codenamed Project Oxford, the idea was simple – bring the power of machine learning that can only be harnessed by an entity of a similar scale to Microsoft, to developers to use anywhere, anytime.

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