The User Experience of Customer-Service Chat: 20 Guidelines
In today’s world, many people turn to chat for a fast, convenient way to interact with businesses for customer service. Chat is often considered superior to traditional methods like telephone calls for several reasons:
- There is less of an emotional investment in the conversation: it’s easier to type a message than to interact in real time with another person.
- There is a written trace of the conversation; both parties can refer to it later on.
- People can multitask. At least on large-screen devices, people can open multiple windows and do a different activity while waiting for the chat representative to respond.
One study participant summarized it well: “Chat is less personable. You have time to think. You can have it in writing. You have to build less courage to talk. And it takes less time [than a phone call].”
To understand how people use chat to interact with businesses and how this interaction channel could be improved, we ran a usability-testing study in which we asked 8 participants to contact a variety of businesses through chat. This article reports some of our main findings and recommendations.
1.Place a Link to Chat on the Contact Us Page and Label it Chat
Our study participants usually looked under Help or Contact Us when they wanted to find the chat. Unfortunately, not all companies made chat easy to locate. Typically, people interpreted hard-to-find chat as “it’s pretty clear that they don’t want you to contact them.”
Some hid chat under vague labels. On Walmart.com, the Help page contained a lot of information, but none of the links clearly pointed to chat. Our participant scrolled down and selected the Contact Us link in the page footer, only to stay on the same page. She eventually clicked on the Walmart.com icon under Contact Us and was prompted with Choose your topic and What can we help with. The user wasn’t sure whether she was on the right track to find chat or whether those options would point her to an FAQ page.
None of the links on Walmart.com’s Help Center was labeled Chat (top). The user clicked the Walmart.com icon and was taken to another page that where she was asked to provide more information about her question. This page did not indicate that she was on the right path to chat either.
2.Don’t Rely on Floating Buttons as the Only Way to Access Chat
Other businesses chose to offer chat as a floating button on the side of the page — either on mobile or on desktop. We noticed that some of our participants completely ignored these buttons. On HSBC a user opened the menu and did not notice the Live Chat button on the side. However, after she selected Contact HSBC, she was really pleased to see the big Live Chat Now button at the top of the page. She said “This is really nice … ‘cause I don’t want to look through like an hour of FAQs and find nothing.”
HSBC.com: The big Live Chat side button was completely ignored by our study participant, who instead accessed chat through the Contact HSBC page, reached through the main menu.
3.Floating Buttons for Chat Should Be Placed on the Right and Should Contrast with the Rest of the Page
Two common reasons for which people ignore floating buttons in general are: (1) they are placed in other position than the standard one (bottom right corner of the page); (2) they don’t stand out enough relative to the rest of the page.
On Dell.com’s mobile site, the chat was also available as a small floating button placed on the left side of the screen. People had difficulty noticing that button and instead navigated to the Contact us page. One user commented that the left-side positioning took her by surprise. Forever 21 also used a floating chat button, but it was so tiny and blended in with the rest of the page, that users ignored it. Its label looped from Ask a Stylist to Live Chat — a feature that we don’t recommend.
Forever 21: The visual design of the chat button made it too hard to notice. The label Ask a Stylist (which changed to Live Chat later on) was also not clear enough for our users.
4.Do Not Hide Chat Under Vague Labels such as Ask a Question
Some companies used chatbots as filters to human-assisted chat. Because this functionality was technically not “live chat”, they generically labeled it Ask a question. This label made the feature hard to locate and the chatbot unlikely to be used. People were not sure whether Ask a question meant sending an email or searching through the FAQ. “’Ask a question – our online help tool’; that sounds like not even a bot; that sounds like just an FAQ section. This sounds like you’re not gonna be talking to someone. […] I feel this is kind of misleading when they have ‘ask a question’; I’m like is that a person, is that just a bot, I don’t know what it is, it’s kind of confusing,” said a participant trying to find the chat on Lloyds’s Bank site.
Instead, label the feature Chat and tell people that, at first, they will talk with a bot, but later on they will be transferred to a human if the bot is not helpful.
Lloydsbank.com: The bank’s virtual assistant was hidden under the Ask a question link.
5.Have a Link to Chat on Product Pages
Many people who are inspecting a product may require clarification about certain features and may need supplemental help through chat. Having that link available on the product page saves them from having to navigate elsewhere in order to contact an agent.
On Purple.com, the user looked around to find the chat feature and eventually typed his question under what seemed like an input box for frequently asked questions. Once he did so, he was presented with a link and the options to chat or call. The user did not expect to find chat in that way.
Purple.com: The user did not expect to find chat by typing a question in the Frequently asked questions field.
6.Minimize Wait Time, Especially on Mobile
People don’t like to wait. When they are on a large screen, they can multitask while waiting for an answer, but on a smartphone, switching between windows is difficult and the user may not receive a notification when the agent responds. One of our study participant commented: “Waiting always bothers me when I am doing it on my phone. When I am on my computer it doesn’t bother me as much because I’m going back and forth [between different windows]. So when I look, I just see the answer there, so I don’t know how long it took them really.”
In general, a fast response time reflected well on the company; in contrast, long wait times made users feel undervalued and they tended to assume that they shared the agent with many other customers. “It bothers me when it takes a long time to answer a question, although they seem they are typing.” (In a separate study, we found that even though people prefer human chat support over chatbots, a faster response was one of the things users did like about chatbots.)
7.Keep Users Updated on How Fast They Will Get a Response
Periodic messages that communicate the state of the agent are essential and serve the same function as progress indicators.
Before the chat started, estimate how long it is going to take for the user to be helped. Messages such as “You’re number 5 in the queue” are less helpful than an actual time estimate — for example, one of our study participants noted, after waiting for a few minutes while being number 2 in the wait queue: “They must be really understaffed….” Another user was puzzled by the message “0 contacts ahead” that he received while waiting for a Purple representative, together with “Please hold for the next available well-rested specialist.” He said “I’m not sure if I should start typing or I should wait because I’m the next person in line… I’ll wait and see if they reply in about a minute and if not I will go ahead and ask my question.”
Purple.com: The chat system displayed conflicting messages, and the user was not sure whether he was supposed to wait or to start typing.
During the chat, people were generally pleased to see the message Agent is typing. It did help them wait more patiently for the agent’s message. However, if the agent’s message took too long to appear, they started becoming suspicious and felt deceived.
Best Buy used puzzling language to communicate the state of the agent: “Agent is paused” caused people to wonder whether the agent had left. “Is this the same as you’re on hold?”
Even a one minute wait can seem a long time if you’re staring at a screen, waiting for a response. Show time stamps for messages to put response times in the right perspective. Time stamps also give users a handle to refer to different conversation items in case they will need the chat log in future comunications with the company.
Dell.com showed a timestamp for each message sent either by the user or by the agent. People commented favorably on that detail.
If a request takes unusually long to respond to, update the users and let them know that the agent is still working. “Still checking” or “I’m still working on that” are useful progress indicators that let users know that the agent has not abandoned the chat entirely.
8.Use a Separate Chat Window
In general, we don’t advocate opening up new content in a new window or tab. Chat is one of the few exceptions to that rule: seeing the chat window next to a view of a different page on the site can help user refer back to information (such a product details or order numbers) that they may have questions about and can also make it easier to explore whatever links the agents will provide.
“I could probably answer maybe even go on a website as I am speaking to them and compare different ones,” remarked one user, as she was interacting with the Dell chat.
9.Visually Differentiate the Messages Coming from Different Participants in the Chat
Several users commented positively when the messages of the agent were shown in a different color than the messages of the user. Dell took this differentiation one step further by using yet a different color for automatically generated messages (labeled as coming from the System — see the screenshot above). One user said: “I like the layout on the screen with different colors — my reply, and their reply, it’s really easy to see.”
10.Prepare for Possible Interruptions
Users in our study appreciated when the chat agents took precautions so that the conversation could continue if it accidentally got disconnected. Some companies asked for the users’ phone numbers so they could call back. Even better was when the agent offered an email address that the user could use to resume the conversation.
In general, give users control over whether they continue the conversation or not. Also, ensure that if the user does attempt to resume an interrupted chat session, the context (and the progress) is saved and the user doesn’t have to reenter questions or start over.
11.Don’t Make Users Type Their Question Multiple Times
Some systems ask users to type some preliminary information (like their name and their question) before connecting them with a chat representative. It’s very annoying when the chat agent asks again for the same information — first, it’s a waste of users’ time, and, second, it shows that the company does not have a well-planned protocol for chat.
We have always recommended seamlessness in omnichannel UX, but as far as users are concerned, a single chat window is a single interaction (even if the backend may involve multiple agents or a combination of humans and computers), so seamlessness is that much more of a requirement for chat.
On Forever 21’s website, a user was asked to type in her question first, and, then, after she was connected to a chat agent, she had to answer the same question again.
Forever 21 asked the user what her problem was before and after she was connected to a representative.
If you ask users to explain the reason for their chat request, use that explanation to provide them with good service; don’t waste their time.
12.Avoid Automated, System-Generated Messages
While chatting with a customer-representative on Met Opera’s site, one user was told to wait while the agent was searching for an answer. After a while, she received the message Your session has expired due to inactivity. The user was surprised and disappointed, and she was ready to close the chat window. But the chat representative then replied back with an answer to her question.
The message was likely automatically generated by the system and not sent directly by the agent. Unfortunately, the user had no way of knowing that, especially since the automated message was displayed in the same way as the other agent-generated messages. The user said: “I assume Judy [the chat agent] typed that in as the session was expiring and then went back to search for my answer maybe…”
MetOpera.com: A study participant was told that her session has ended and then received her answer from the chat agent.
13.Allow People to Upload Documents During the Chat Session
In case people need to submit photos or additional documentation about their problem, they should be able to do it regardless of the device they are using. Google Express allowed desktop users to upload an attachment to their message.
Google Express allowed users to upload an attachment on desktop.
Dell also had an attachment button, but unfortunately it did not work on a mobile device.
14.Allow Users to Save a Transcript of the Session
Many chat systems offered to email users a transcript or allowed them to save a pdf. Users commented favorably when they were offered with these options, for several reasons: (1) the transcript could serve as a reference later; (2) they felt reassured that they could quote the agent in case of a dispute or another type of issue — “I like having the transcript; especially if they’re rude.”
We recommend offering both options. Saving a pdf may not be handy on a mobile device, but on a desktop it can be preferable to receiving an email.
If users choose to have the transcript emailed and their email address was collected during the conversation, make sure you don’t force them to enter that email address again.
15.If Live Chat Is Not Always Available, Specify the Hours When It Is
MetOpera did not always have live chat available, yet it did not tell people when they could use that opportunity.
16.The Agent Should Not Start the Conversation with “How Are You”
While the chat agent should be polite, an emphasis should be put on efficiency. Polite questions such as “How are you today” or just the word “Hello” delay some people. One of our users had already started typing her question when the agent asked “Hello; How are you?” She deleted what she had already typed and entered “Fine” instead and retyped her question.
A better chat starter is: “Hello! How can I help you today?”
17.Be Upfront About Using a Bot
People can better calibrate their language and their expectations when they know that their conversation partner is a bot.
When they chat with a human, some users do try to be polite to get a better response. “I try to be friendly. The nicer I am the better they will respond.” Although not everybody feels the pressure to be polite, some people will be excessively so and waste time and bandwidth with pleasantries when they think that a real person is at the other end of the line. For example, they will say “Thank you” and “Good bye” at the end of a conversation. Or phrase their questions with “is it possible…” Many said they would feel bad to just close the chat window at the end of a session, “out of respect for the other person.”
When users know that their chat partner is a bot, they often streamline their language to make it more easily understandable. Take advantage of this natural tendency and let people know if your agent is a bot.
18.Don’t Overuse Canned Responses
Some canned responses are acceptable, but a lot of canned responses raise suspicion and make people believe that the agent is a bot. “This makes me think I am talking to a bot… The answers seem pretty general” said a user interacting with a Dell agent who had just replied “Glad that you chatted in. I’ll be happy to assist you with your concern today” after she had described her problem.
People like friendly, not overly formal language that sounds like a real person. Occasional typos are okay, but a lot of typos can raise questions about the professionalism of the company.
19.A Canned Response Should Be Instantaneous
Chat agents should have responses to common questions already prepared. But don’t assume that users won’t know when a question they ask is a simple, common one. They do and they expect such questions to be answered quickly.
In a longer conversation, one user asked a Purple representative about the company’s return policy and got an answer after 2 minutes. He commented “I could get that answer from everywhere, so it bothers me that it took so long for him to give me that answer. Even though it was just two minutes, it felt like a long time just waiting staring at my phone… It’s a copy-paste answer, he could have copied-pasted it very quickly, but it took so long. I could have done that in 10 seconds. “
Purple: The chat agent took 2 minutes to answer a simple question about Purple’s return policy.
20.Provide Users with Specific, Detailed Answers
When people have invested the time in a chat conversation, it means they likely need detail that they were not able to find by themselves elsewhere. So it’s important to be as specific as possible and offer them answers that match their needs.
The participant who was shopping for a Purple mattress commented that the answer he received about the refund policy was not specific enough for him. “I don’t like when I’m presented with vague answers, like ‘all the information you would need would be presented in this form’. Making it seem like it’s very easy, but what if it’s not? It’s annoying, because I’m sure it’s not going to be as easy. It’s an expensive item, it’s almost $2800, I don’t think it will be that easy.” He was expecting to get details about how the mattress would be shipped back, whether there would be any costs associated with shipping, and whether he would need to justify why he did not like it.
Sometimes providing a specific answer might involve getting more data from the customer. On Dell.com, a user asked a question about monitors that would work with her laptop. The agent proceeded in searching for a monitor for her, but he did not ask her what type of laptop she had. The user wondered whether the representative would be able to do any useful work in the absence of that information.
Chat is a popular means for contacting customer service. To be effective, it needs to be easy to find and supply prompt, clear, and detailed responses. Companies should be upfront about using bots to help users calibrate their language and their expectations. They should also avoid empty or duplicate questions and allow people to upload supplemental materials or save their chat logs for further reference.