BACKGROUND IMAGE: stock.adobe.com
In September, I looked at Microsoft Flow, which is Microsoft’s workflow automation app. At Microsoft Ignite 2019, they renamed it Power Automate, in order to make the name better fit the Power Platform branding.
Microsoft dedicated several breakout sessions to covering all the new and existing aspects of Power Automate, so we’re going to look at the feature that really interested me: UI flow with robotic process automation (RPA).
As I’ve been looking at the various workflow apps available, Jack has been telling me about the days when he covered app transformation via products like Powwow, HopTo, Citrix Project Golden Gate, and Project Vertigo. The space has had its ups and downs through the years, but it clearly continues to capture the attention of desktop virt and mobility folks. It will be interesting to see what happens with the current enthusiasm.
RPA and UI flow: automate legacy application processes
We’ve been following all the different workflow apps being promoted out there, but RPA and UI flow is probably the neatest feature that actually made me sit up and pay attention.
While Microsoft recommends using source applications that have APIs, they revealed that they developed a tool to bridge older apps (that lack APIs) with modern systems. UI flow can be used either with legacy applications and with web processes through Edge on Chromium or Google Chrome with Selenium, a playback framework that helps with automating browsers.
How UI flow works is that when building the flow, you actually record the process of working with the older application—make sure to run through the motions of how you normally go through the application before recording as it needs to be clear what you’re doing. Once done, you go through each step and tell Power Automate what data you need from each click of your mouse and data field (it’ll have a small screenshot of the step, too). Once that’s done, test out the UI flow to make sure it executes properly (It’ll tell you at what step it failed, if there’s an issue, making it easy to troubleshoot).
Now, UI flows aren’t perfect, given that they’re working with older applications most of the time. Microsoft noted that it’s a pretty fragile process—if using a web application and it changes, the UI flow is broken. So, it’s recommended use is more with legacy apps since they generally are more stagnant and unlikely to change. Additionally, it’s not a quick process; it looks like it runs at about the same speed as it would take an employee—but the benefit is it’s automatic and their time can be spent on literally anything else. Lastly, you’ll want to use UI flow in a VM since the application being used has to be open and not minimized on your screen.
Customer and internal case studies for RPA
During the session “Introducing Robotic Process Automation with Microsoft Power Automate,” Microsoft revealed some case studies around how RPA is already being used both internally and with customers.
For Microsoft, they developed a UI flow for ever-fluctuating currency exchange rates for global invoicing. The UI flow uses Edge on Chromium to check the exchange rate from Google’s exchange rate capabilities and then take the result and fill out an Excel spreadsheet.
Japanese company Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance uses UI flow and RPA for conference room scheduling since the application they use is quite old. This UI flow was developed by one of their citizen developers, aka just an employee tired of how their current scheduling process worked.
Lastly, TruGreen employed RPA and UI flow to handle invoicing to their thousands of independent contractors. They used to do it manually, but set up the UI flow using AI builder to recognize a PDF invoice and save info, which then is sent to the finance department’s Teams group for approval. Here, the invoice format must remain similar or the flow will break as it won’t recognize where to pull the information from.
There’s a lot around Power Automate beyond just RPA and UI flows, including process discovery, which lets organizations figure out what processes they have that they could automate.
But, we still have a couple questions around workflow apps: whether customers are truly using them and internally who builds them? Microsoft spoke about TruGreen and Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance using the apps as as proof of concept. It’s still not sure who actually builds them at companies—we know that it in theory it could be anyone, but are they really? I’ve reached out to companies to find out more in the actual execution side: is it truly anyone or does it just end up being admin and app developers?
Either way, UI flows and RPA looks to be a neat tool— Here at BrianMadden.com, we have a couple of legacy workflows that Jack and I would love to automate, so we’ll have to look at putting this citizen developer thing to the test!