June 03, 2010

Aetna's new "virtual online assistant" represents an interesting twist in the genre, as the capability is not only given a name but a real face. This is a departure from the standard static imagery of models designed to look like customers, executives or employees, as well as cartoon images or animations that serve as avatars for real or fictional people. In the case of Aetna's online assistant, we are asked to think of the automated function as "Ann," represented by a photo of lovely, approachable young woman who obviously is not answering questions 24 hours a day.

"Ann" answers questions 24/7, helping users navigate Aetna's secure member site. According to an Aetna news release, Ann offers support to members new to the site or who, for whatever reason, need help logging in. Members receive the same responsive service from Ann that they receive when calling customer service, but without leaving the website," the release says. "Ann is interactive and easily interprets members' questions, helping them with the registration process or with recovering forgotten user names or passwords."

When my contact at Aetna - Sherry Sanderford, director, marketing, product and communications - offered me an interview, presumably with the middle-aged male executive named in the press release, I asked whether she could set up a date with Ann instead. Sherry answered in the negative. "Unfortunately," she said, "She's married." Sherry then explained that I could have found this out for myself had I simply asked Ann.

While Ann is simply an automated function provided with a representative face and voice, she has a highly developed persona which includes her marital status. Unfortunately for her, I'm married too, but I took Sherry up on her invitation to ask a couple of questions to test Ann's ability to handle a variety of questions. Here's our dialogue:

You Asked: What do you do in your spare time?

Ann: I enjoy my job and the opportunity it provides me to help others. Therefore, my time here with you feels more like time spent on a hobby or pastime. How may I help you access your secure member website?

You Asked: You have to eat sometime. How about we go out to dinner?

Ann: I prefer to cook at my virtual home. My favorite is whole grain pasta primavera. The mix of veggies is healthy and it tastes great. Let me know if you have any questions about log in and registration.

You Asked: What kind of music do you listen to?

Ann: I like all kinds of music. Did you know that researchers have found that listening to music actually has health benefits? Fast music stimulates the mind; slow music relaxes it. This can affect your breathing, heart rate, state of mind and other aspects of your health.

Pretty good, I'd say. There is something strange about interacting with a machine in this fashion when actually communicating, as opposed to playing "stump the robot" for laughs. However, the point is to play along, as it were. As Sherry explains, "Ann is a way to put a friendly face to what otherwise might be a static, impersonal interaction."

But Ann is more than just a pretty face, Sherry insists. Ann represents a good deal of thought and research, and not just in her impressive question-answering ability. Aetna chose Ann rather than Andy because women are more likely to manage their families' health, Sherry says. The insurer chose a model of indeterminate race, which makes it easier for a wider range of people to relate to her. Ann is more like a mom than a starlet, making her less threatening or otherwise distasteful to women. At the same time, she is more than sufficiently attractive to make males happy to interact with her. She has also been given interpretive capabilities make it unlikely that a member will feel the need to disengage and resort to the traditional telephone channel for answers.

The soundness of Ann's design been validated by adoption by Aetna's members. "We're averaging 2,500 chat sessions daily, and calls to our customer service technical help desk declined 29 percent in the past month as a result," Sherry reports. "She surpassed all expectations in terms of how much people were engaging with her and using the service."The soundness of Ann's design been validated by adoption by Aetna's members. "We're averaging 2,500 chat sessions daily, and calls to our customer service technical help desk declined 29 percent in the past month as a result," Sherry reports. "She surpassed all expectations in terms of how much people were engaging with her and using the service."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek ...