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August 30, 2013 By Hendrik-Jan Francke

Balancing automated & live chat usability

Chat functions on websites deliver a luxury that is so rare in today’s automated service industry: human assistance. Well, most of the time. Sometimes, things get caught in limbo.

The space in-between automated and human assistance can present a series of usability problems for the live chat. If you are going to have automated and live support integrated on your site, remember: be available, be responsive, and, most importantly, be consistent.

Personal messages engage users

Inspiration for this post came as I was searching for a new accounting solution. A black box in the corner beckoned ‘Click here for help’. Why not, I thought. Before I could type my information, I was greeted.

"Have any questions? I’m here, filled with coffee, ready to help." messaged the friendly looking, mustached man. His greeting was unique, proactive, and surprisingly personal. I was so intrigued, I decided to chat and learn more about the software and responsive company.

Fake personal messages disengage users

This is where the disconnect happens. The friendly message was really automated; the mustached man was suddenly replaced replaced by a different support agent.

That the chat switched from the automated message to an agent isn’t a big deal. They presented the bait and I willingly took it. But as I continued the conversation, response time was slow and did not match the proactive, responsive expectation I built from the automated response (I felt the coffee reference implied hyper fast responses).

Humans should maintain thread of conversation sparked by the automated message

Admittedly, I let my usability geek get the better of me and tested their live chat chops instead of researching accounting software.

I poked around a bit more and encountered the another
robot-to-human disconnect issue.

“Would you like to extend your trial?”. A second automated, but none the less relevant message. After I replied ‘yes’, another agent popped up and asked me “How may I help you?”

The specific offer to extend my trial made by the automated response was clearly lost in translation from robot to human. As the agent took over the chat from the robot, they failed to continue the thread of the conversation. Was the agent unaware? I don’t know. Unfortunately, the usefulness and relevancy of the automated message was negated when we had to start from scratch.

Tips for user friendly live chats

This chat experience was not bad by any means. But the subtle flaws and inconsitencies in automated vs human communication illuminated some important chat usability points.

  • Be available – If you are unavailable the majority of the time, the existence of the chat feature reflects badly on you.
  • Be responsive – Chat features hopefully promise a quicker answer to the question. Slow
    response times are frustrating and will not bode well with impatient users.
  • Be consistent – If you are going to use engaging yet automated messages to entice people, make sure the agent continues the thread. The disconnection can be jarring to users.

Do you have a chat feature on your site? What are some of you strategies or challenges? Drop us a line.

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