Web Chat and the Future Online Chat

There are two main messaging platforms. The largest platforms are the main messaging chat apps such as Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. There is another category of messaging which enables people to chat on the web without downloading an application.

Web chat definition

Webchat is text based chat between people or chatbots delivered over the web. People can communicate with each other or bots over web chat online. Unlike the main chat applications, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Twitter and other social platforms, a chat on the web does not have to be installed as an application on a smartphone to use.

The main chat applications, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, do have web versions, however this is not what webchat typically means. Also webchat is typically between a company and its customers, not between to people chatting for personal reasons. It specifically addresses the need for businesses to be able to communicate with their customers, in particular those customers who are on their website. Even when we refer to the main chat applications in this article, we are typically taking about the business use case for these applications where customers use Whatsapp or Twitter for example to communicate with companies.

What is web based chat?

Webchat is usually one of two types of chat. It can be the type of chat that anyone can use anonymously, often on a one off basis, for specific questions or support issues. Examples of this are a pre-sales questions on a website or for a customer support inquiry.

Web based chat is suited to this use case because the chat window is instantly available and can be used immediately by anyone who needs it. It is extremely easy for a user of a site to send a message to a company through webchat. It is also an anonymous channel from the customer's point of view which is important to safeguard privacy. Of course the company answering the chat would rather collect the customer’s details if possible and may ask the customer to share these details with them.

Facebook has released a web based version of Messenger that can be used for web chat on websites. This version of web chat allows websites to capture the contact details of the prospects if the prospect is logged into Facebook and allows the website to see their details.

Another common use case for web chat is the case when a company needs to know that all customer (not just a subset) will be able to use the chat or there are security or privacy issues in using a third party controlled platform. The business that is offering the chat service does not want to build and maintain interfaces to different chat platforms and therefore opts for an enterprise bot solution.

There is a problem in maintaining different interfaces to different chat platforms and that is that different chat platforms have different user interfaces which are important when non-text based messages are concerned. This means that messages that are not purely text based need to be customized for each platform. This is particularly important with regards to chatbots.

Chatbots are becoming increasingly ubiquitous for customer service inquiries. Customers can instantly get help on their questions about products or services from chatbots.

Web chat is suited to offering chatbot services because chatbots often use graphical widgets in providing support. Webchat support for standardized graphical widgets and the ability to be able to customize the webchat behaviour and interface using code such as javascript, are advantages to using webchat over other chat applications which are less flexible. Having to make each chat channel conform to the same set of graphical interactions requires a lot of work.

One alternative to using web chat is using sms (because it works for every mobile phone user) however the sms user experience is not good and therefore is often not viewed as a good channel for communication. The RCS platform which has replaced SMS is certainly a viable alternative to consider.

Even for a simple web chat application, there may be a requirement for people to log in or provide details before they chat with a human, and these sorts of interactions are better done with some sort of graphical component. This can be easily done on webchat.

Being able to modify the interface is particularly important for brand control. Being able to customize the look and feel of a web chat is important in keeping control of the brand image. Using a mainstream chat app means that your brand will be undifferentiated from all the others from a look and feel point of view.

Another advantage of web chat for those concerned with security, is that messages will not be exposed to any third party system. Communicating with customers over the main chat channels and social networks means that third party companies will have access to customer messages. This can be a particular concern for companies that have a strict privacy policy in place such as is in the healthcare, banking and governments industries.

This is related to the on-prem, public cloud, private cloud and hybrid deployment debate. If the application is installed on some sort of cloud, some third party has access to the data.

Many of the mainstream chat application providers will try to monetize the data. This can be a concern from a competitive advantage point of view as it is difficult to know what information about your activities is being provided to competitors even in aggregated form. Even worse, are you competitors being given access to your customers as your customers will be categorized as being in need of the type of service you provide which will make it straightforward for competitors to target them.

One important point with regards to webchat is that in most cases it is only the customer who is chatting using a web chat client. The person who they are talking to, normally a company representative is using some sort of dedicated software to speak to the customer. Typically the person speaking to the customer is a customer support agent.

The agent will use software, such as Zendesk or Live Agent, to respond to many different customer inquiries, often simultaneously. They need a dedicated client that is optimized for this task. They need to see the conversations that are allocated to them and respond to them efficiently.

This is also the case with chatbots where it is often the case where more complex queries get escalated to human agents who are using dedicated software. This process is called human in the loop. In many cases, the chatbots are either trained explicitly or implicitly by the human agents.

Again this reinforces the pattern that users who use the chat frequently, such as human agents, will require a dedicated (normally desktop) app, while those who use the chat infrequently will use webchat.

We have spoken extensively about the advantages of webchat, however it does have some disadvantages.

The major disadvantage is that it doesn’t naturally support push notifications. Like a website, the user needs to be logged in to receive messages. This means that users need to receive notifications, including of new messages, by sms or email. Receiving notifications in this way is far from an ideal user experience for many reasons, including that it clutters the inbox.

Other disadvantages are that web chat is a link that needs to be opened (rather than an app on the phone) and that requires a little bit of extra mental effort and time to interact with it.

Of course, these two issues will be addressed in time as the difference between web apps and installed apps narrows.

It is already possible to have the browser (web apps) send notifications to users and the performance of web apps is always improving. At the moment the solutions are not perfect, but as they improve, web based chat will become the preferred channel for a wider set of use cases. As communication speeds and related web technology improves, it is likely that the performance and usefulness of webchat (and web apps) will grow rapidly.

As chatbots become more sophisticated, the trend to use webchat will become even more pronounced. Introducing sophisticated behaviour directly into a mainstream chat app (outside of using a webview) is hard if not impossible. In future it will likely be the case that webchat becomes a blend of graphical and text based input that responds to text or voice interactions. In this way the line between apps (or a web app) with a conversational dimension, and chat and voice devices with graphical UIs will blurr. Either way, there will need to be significant ability on the part of the developer to customize the channel.

An interesting related point to note right now is that webchat is usually far more responsive than a web app because sending and receiving messages is less vulnerable to performance issues than graphical interfaces. People are accustomed to waiting for messages to be sent or received however they are less happy when a graphical interface appears to hang.

Ultimately webchat addresses many of the issues faced when deciding which channel to use to communicate with a customer. Webchat beats using mainstream chat apps in terms of security, ability to customize the behavior and interface, ease of maintenance and ease of access for the end user.

As usual, the main consideration at least for end customers is convenience. Currently webchat delivers convenience for customer service type use case and mainstream apps deliver convenience for ongoing, day to day chat requirements.

It will be interesting to see how this space evolves in the future.