It’s the week after Signal 2020, Twilio’s annual developer conference. I wanted to recap some key announcements and impressions from various sessions and product news. After several attempts to schedule due to the pandemic, Signal re-invented itself this year as a completely virtual experience. I was fortunately enough to be asked to speak at a session, so it was interesting to experience things from that perspective as well as attending sessions myself. My team also assisted Twilio in some aspects of Signal Concierge, the platform built on Twilio services to support the entire experience. All in all it was very fulfilling and interesting and I was happy to participate.
As usual, there were a number of highlights and announcements during the conference and leading up to it. In some cases, features that we’ve been evaluating in pilot or beta configurations have now gone primetime and are ready for wider usage. In other cases, some exciting new possibilities were unveiled that open up new and unique use cases, many of which customers have been asking about.
The new Plugins API is now available for use in Beta. This opens up better CI/CD tooling options as well as better administration from within a new Flex UI administrative plug-in. You can group plugins into a release, along with other assets and version them. After deployment, the new version can be released to users and can also be rolled back directly in the Flex UI Plugin Manager. This allows separation between the development and deployment of plugins and contact center administration to determine which plugins and versions are in use. From a development standpoint, the Plugins API is integrated into the Twilio CLI for common tooling, scripting and CI/CD options. The new Plugin Manager requires Flex UI 1.19 or greater. There is a migration guide to follow to move from previous options, such as create-flex-plugin, etc.
We’ve been asking for this functionality pretty much since Flex was originally released. It’s fairly common to have functionality shared across multiple IVR flows. We often see patterns such as user verification, off hours, payment/PCI compliant functionality or other repeated logic where it makes sense to re-use behavior. Subflows allow you to pass in necessary context from one Studio Flow into another Studio Flow and then pass values back to the calling Flow. Keep in mind not all context is passed automatically, so you need to choose what parameters you want to go in and what data you need returned to continue on in the calling Flow.
General Platform Improvements
Being able to set a webhook from TaskRouter and other services to sink events opens up a number of use cases. It’s rare we work on a customer engagement where these webhooks aren’t used to enable some aspect of requirements. Because multiple use cases can need access to these events, managing access appropriately with proper scalability can become challenging. Event Streams allows you to define your own set of events from Voice, SMS and TaskRouter and stream them to an endpoint. Due to customer demand, the initial endpoint will be AWS Kinesis, but other endpoints will be coming. If you’ve been waiting for more options around eventing, you can sign up for the private Beta here. We’ve signed up and are anxiously waiting to give this a test run.
This is still a private pilot, so not a whole lot of public information or documentation yet. This API-driven data store will hold a common, GDPR-compliant single contact source for a customer. Think of this as a lightweight way to tie various customer channel interactions together, for instance in situations where agents are not using a CRM or other customer source of truth in an internal system.
This is a brand new service just announced that enables “front-line” employees in your organization to communicate with customers in a structured way. It utilizes Twilio communications APIs such as the Conversations API and supports multiple digital channels including SMS and WhatsApp. A common use case would be a retail store employee who is helping a customer find a product. Retail employees often develop relationships with repeat customers, sometimes assisting them using personal devices. Frontline will allow these types of interactions to be pulled into central management using Twilio numbers for retention, compliance and reporting purposes. Part of the Frontline platform includes native applications for iOS and Android, which has been a common ask from customers for these types of use cases. We’ve personally had multiple customers inquire about options to support this functionality, so we’re excited to see how this product develops.
Conversations API was introduced last year at Signal and this year the big announcement is the platform is going GA. This platform continues to evolve in capabilities, evidenced in part by the announcement of Frontline. It will only get more interesting as the foundation of messaging for Flex starts to move over to this paradigm. The good news is many of the foundational APIs and concepts are similar to Programmable Chat. You can get a sense of that here in the docs, but keep in mind this won’t work with Flex channels yet.
Some newer features include delivery receipts and States and Timers. Most people understand delivery receipts, but the States and Timers features are something worth digging into a bit more. As companies start utilizing messaging or digital channels for more customer engagement, you will quickly learn some concepts are different from voice. Managing agent capacity and focus and how “active” a conversation is at a given time look a lot different. If you want to dig into more details around this, see my series on text-based channels that is still pretty relevant to this topic. States and Timers give you programmatic ways to move conversations between active and inactive states without closing them. You can set up configured timers to determine what periods of inactivity trigger certain states. It’s a very useful feature that maps more closely to many real-world use cases we are seeing.
Mobile SDKs are now using native networking stacks on mobile, resulting in much smaller sizes. Twilio is seeing Final Application Size reduced up to 30%.
Group Texting or Group MMS is now available in US and Canada. It supports up to 4 participants and is fully supported in the Conversations API. It’s currently in Public Beta, so you can try this out now. Keep in mind this doesn’t need to be all MMS participants, you can have a mix of MMS, chat and WhatsApp for instance.
A free tier was announced for 1-to-1 interactions called Twilio Video WebRTC Go. This includes reference apps for iOS, Android and React, video troubleshooting and diagnostics and a media relay allowance that should support up to 100,000 participant minutes per month. This should help to drive even more usage of the platform, which has seen significant growth in 2020 due to COVID use cases and WFH situations. Signal 2020 had a number of video-focused sessions and the Concierge platform used it for certain use cases as well. Perficient has been working with Programmable Video quite a bit, so we would love to discuss how to add video to your customer engagement strategy.
Marketing and email continued to see a large presence in sessions. We are seeing a lot of interest in figuring out best practices to turning more of these campaigns or outbound only use cases into conversations. It’s time to be creative in finding flexible ways for customers to engage back to you, whether it be conversational AI and chatbots, speaking to an agent, interacting with self-service options for scheduling and feedback or escalating to a video interaction.
IOT was also a focus, with the big announcement being the new Microvisor. The platform aims to take even more of the complexity out of build iOT applications. It does this by tackling the security layer, add abstractions on the network layer, enabling remote debugging and providing secure boot, among other features. To put it another way, Microvisor abstracts away a lot of the plumbing concerns that vary from device to device, allowing you to focus more on the specific functionality you are trying to enable.
Developer Mode was a huge hit was the developers attending the conference. Developers could follow online with live sessions and immediately jump to demos, code samples and other contextual information. Available inside any common developer Terminal, this Twilio CLI plug-in was available to any ticket holder, including the free tier. For more information on how this was built, including how React was used in a very creative way, check out Dominik Kundel’s breakdown.
Signal 2020 saw more attendees than ever, due to the ease of attending virtually and so much of the content being available for free. Twilio has seen a lot of growth this year and the conference provided a nice recap of where that growth is occurring, the types of challenges developers are solving using the platform and focuses moving forward.
We’re still in the middle of a huge amount of innovation in customer engagement and communication. It was fantastic to see all of the excitement around all the ways the overall platform is evolving. If any of these announcements might provide an answer to your strategic goals for 2021, let’s talk about it. We look forward to partnering with you and Twilio to unlock the art of the possible as you continue to learn how to best engage and delight your customers.