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Vashon Citizen was the lead on the development of Emma at the USCIS.  USCIS is one of the first federal agencies to implement a virtual agent in English, let alone in Spanish.  Emma, the virtual assistant offers the option of web-based chat with a USCIS contact center representative who, with certain systems access, can provide more substantive responses. We believe Emma and Live Chat will reduce the need for repeat case inquiries that currently pose a burden for multiple directorates.  As a cornerstone of a holistic customer experience strategy, Emma and Live Chat are designed to move customers from resource-intensive channels, such as telephone engagements and field office visits, to more effective and efficient self-help, digital platforms that customers can access conveniently, anytime, from their phone, tablet or home computer.


During fiscal year 2017, Emma assisted more than 3.1 million users in English and 560,000 users in Spanish, collectively growing Emma’s reach 113% over the previous year. The USCIS Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate (CSPED) developed the first Interactive Virtual Assistant (IVA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in December 2015. The IVA, known as Emma, has revolutionized knowledge management and customer engagement for immigration-related questions by opening a channel of communication for millions of customers around the world. Not bound by office hours, Emma is available 24/7, anytime, anywhere.


To create Emma, CSPED designers used a groundbreaking design method that leveraged customers and USCIS’ employees in the co-creation process. The team placed Emma on a beta test site and invited external customers and all of DHS to ask her questions, which formed the basis for Emma’s content and structure. In all, more than 135,000 people asked Emma questions over a four-month period to prepare for “Go Live” on


When a customer asks Emma a question, she answers in plain English, provides a link and auto navigates the customer to where the information is on In this way, Emma has prompted customers to adopt new ways of researching information, exploring programs, and resolving issues. In addition, Emma uses an iterative learning process to become “smarter” over time. CSPED works behind the scenes to analyze her “was this helpful” data and provide better responses to a range of common to complex immigration topics. Emma is equally functional on desktops and mobile devices and has received recognition across government and private industry as “best in class.”


At the end of FY17, CSPED strengthened Emma’s ability to address more complex issues by launching an integrated Live Chat function. When customers ask a question that is beyond her scope, Emma intuitively forwards the customer inquiries. Emma has a success rate of 92.4% in English and 90.2% in Spanish. To continuously improve the experience, Emma provides customers, CSPED amasses direct customer feedback through focus groups and survey data, as well as a sophisticated suite of analytical tools to identify priority content areas.  


They are constantly listening, analyzing, and refining Emma.  Both English- and Spanish-speaking customers indicate that Emma’s responses are easy to understand clearly written.  When asked if Emma’s responses are written with too many government or legal terms, a majority of customers said no. In fact, when asked to compare Emma to USCIS’ 800-line, a high percentage of English- and Spanish-speaking respondents chose Emma because she “eliminates personality types,” and provides the customer with relevant web content that can be bookmarked and referenced in the future.  In fact, a majority of customers surveyed indicated they would prefer to engage with Emma’s Live Chat feature instead of the 800 number.