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Twilio Studio - now anyone can build a voicemail and messaging app

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 22, 2017
Twilio Studio is a new drag-and-drop visual editor that opens up the communications platform to non-developers when building voicemail and messaging apps

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One of the most complex challenges in information technology is fusing the disparate fields of computing and communications. Developers have never found it easy to combine the two — even though they share a common heritage — when building business applications.

This disconnect explains why all of us so often end up in voicemail hell whenever we have to call up a business to buy something or get support. The tools available to build those menu systems typically require specialist technology skills and are often inflexible and limited in functionality. It's even more of a challenge to get them to work in sync with other ways we might want to get in touch, such as text messaging, Twitter or Facebook. However much an enterprise may want to provide its customers a better experience when we contact them, the tools make it impractically hard to get it right.

Until this week, that is, when Twilio took another step forward on its journey to turn every form of communication into just another cloud service on its platform, something that's easy to add to any software project. The launch of a new visual designer called Twilio Studio opens up its platform to non-developers, enabling cross-functional collaboration when building and maintaining customer engagement applications.

Build applications in collaboration

Now pretty much anyone can build what computer telephony experts call an interactive voice response (IVR) system, just by dragging and connecting boxes on a visual designer. Having seen the demo, I'm confident that even I could do it. And not only a classic 'press one for sales, two for service' menu tree, but one that includes speech recognition and can also accept and reply to text messages from SMS or iMessage, Facebook messenger or even Twitter DM.

Obviously the main point is not actually to have novices like me building interactive menu trees from scratch, but rather to make it easier for developers to build contact and engagement applications in collaboration with business users. The visual interface makes it easy for non-technical participants to see and understand the workflow and suggest or even insert their own amendments or modifications.

The other objective is to free up developer time by simplifying and automating the routine, repetitive aspects of building communications into an application so that they can concentrate on development tasks where their skills are really needed. As Twilio VP of Product Pat Malatack likes to say, the goal is to free up developers to "write the code that counts."

Studio, which is currently available on early release, builds on the Twilio Engagement Cloud, introduced earlier this year to package up Twilio's communications APIs into pre-built application components. Now Studio surfaces those components as a set of omnichannel widgets that can be plugged into workflows in the drag-and-drop visual editor.

Digital native and established enterprise

There are two types of business that are ready to take advantage of this kind of rapid, agile, collaborative approach to development, says EMEA sales director Doug Barnes. The first are digital-native startups, such as business insurance provider SimplyBusiness, whose CTO Lukas Oberhuber joined Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson on stage during the keynote of the London event on Tuesday. Oberhuber had described how the company runs hackathons as a way of surfacing innovation. Barnes comments:

The ideas are all generated from the people that actually are on the phones with customers, dealing with customers every day. That is impossible unless the business has adopted an agile way of approaching things in a very iterative mindset.

Whereas an established business like retailer John Lewis, which was also represented on the keynote stage, is more constrained in where it can introduce a more agile approach, says Barnes:

There's a lot of other High Street retailers that, every conversation we have is very similar — 'We cannot communicate with our customers. We have legacy kit that's holding us back and our customers are communicating with our sales agents on the High Street via WhatsApp — completely out of our scope, completely out of our purview.' It's a risk. It's out of compliance.

They're not ready for the full organization overhaul like SimplyBusiness is, but I think where Twilio is going to add value is in the Engagement Cloud because it will be for builders, not necessarily organizational wide, transformational type projects.

Twilio underpins communications for John Lewis Home Solutions, a new offering launched this month, which allows householders to source certified tradespeople such as plumbers, gardeners and electricians to carry out repairs and minor works around the home. Twilio allows the tradespeople to directly call and message customers without either party having to reveal their number.

Customer-facing rather than internal

Most of the 28 billion interactions that took place over Twilio in the past year have been as part of customer contact and engagement application. Although there's an emerging trend for messaging to become an important part of internal enterprise interactions, especially when combined with AI and chatbots, Barnes says this has not yet become a significant use case for Twilio:

Any business that's communicating with their customers over the phone, that has very much a strategic value to that, we see a ton of traction.

Mobile workers, today we haven't seen a lot of that shift from the phone extension, but I think as more and more business do away with that and everything becomes more BYOD, like what we've seen with Morgan Stanley in the States, then definitely I think you'll see the internal use case using Twilio's AIs take off in that regard.

My take

One thing you notice when sitting in a Twilio keynote is the amount of actual code that features in the presentation deck. There was even a coding in-joke, when Malatack said that one of the themes of the day would be code that counts, and displayed a 'for' statement that would loop through increments of one — thus counting from one to 100,000. Laughter rippled through the room. Clearly, this was a developer audience.

But with Studio, Twilio is reaching beyond that immediate audience, aiming to draw business counterparts into its ambit. While the relationship is still going to be owned by developers, there's a recognition that enterprises today need platforms that allow product managers to work with developers so that they can experiment and fine-tune how the enterprise engages with its customers. Not every organization is set up to work in that very agile, iterative model, but for those that are able to, Studio will likely prove a very useful tool.

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