Improving the User Experience of ‘Live Chat’ Can Improve Sales

Many online retail sites have decided to offer their visitors an online chat option, a clear signal that online retailers and shoppers alike are beginning to embrace live chat as an effective alternative to telephone and email customer service support.

Our focus here is to examine the live chat feature in the context of usability best practices as it relates to the following factors:

  • Look and feel of the live chat icon
  • Availability and placement of live chat option
  • Content and user interface design of chat screen

Look and Feel of Live Chat Option

Examples below give an insight into the look and feel of some typical chat icons.

Live chat icons found on retail sites vary greatly and include some of the following:



Overstock_revised.jpg    Need_Help.jpg

Deciding what type of visual representation to adopt should depend on the demographic segmentation of a particular site’s target visitors. If a site caters to a narrow demographic segment, then an icon with a picture representing that demographic could be viewed in a positive light. However, if a site draws visitors from a broader demographic segment in terms of gender, culture and geography (both national and international), then a prudent choice may be to use a gender- and culture-neutral icon such as a stylized thought bubble or even a text link.

Availability and Placement of Live Chat Option

Some practices you may want to avoid or modify in regard to the placement of the live chat option:

  • Some sites attempt to aggressively establish live interaction with their site visitors by presenting visitors with a chat window within a few minutes of visitors arriving at the site. This could become a distraction which may cause visitors to leave the site altogether. Our usability test studies have shown visitors prefer to seek out live chat when they perceive a need for it. To that end, discretion should be used when considering whether to push unsolicited live chat onto visitors.
  • Many retail sites choose to place the chat option link in the text links area at the bottom of site pages and the homepage, as illustrated below:nordstrom_revised 2.jpg

    Though placing the chat link at the bottom of the page gives visitors a way to access the option if they so desire, more often than not, users tend to ignore information placed below the page fold, especially if they have to scroll extensively to access it.

Some practices you will want to learn more about and employ when it comes to placement of the live chat option:

  • The emerging trend of placing the chat feature in the general area of the top navigation bar could serve visitors better by making the chat icon fairly inconspicuous, but at the same time giving it more visibility than a text link located within the page footer. For one such illustration, see the graphic below:Tool_Bar_containing_chat_icon_revised_Dell.jpg
  • Many retail sites also place the chat option strategically in the vicinity of the ‘Add to Cart’ button on the product detail page, as illustrated in the example below:Prod_pg_revised.jpg
  • Additionally, the chat feature can be placed at all the possible points where users go to seek answers to questions they may have, such as throughout the checkout process. Other likely points would be the help section, the contact us section, the customer service area and the tech support area.
  • Placing a chat icon beside the search entry field may also increase the visibility of the chat option as the search entry field typically garners a significant amount of visitor traffic.

Content and User Interface Design of Live Chat Screen

Once visitors access the chat functionality, the challenge now shifts to providing them with a user-friendly and seamless user experience. To that end, the following guidelines should be kept in mind:

  • Avoid requiring users to enter personal information such as their telephone number and email address, as this may discourage users from initiating the chat.
  • When a visitor initiates a chat, ideally, a representative should be available to respond immediately. If that is not possible, the visitor should be shown a message displaying the estimated wait time.
  • In situations where representatives have to leave the chat momentarily to check records or obtain additional information, ensure the representative informs the visitor of this by saying something to the effect of “Give me a moment and I will check that for you.”
  • When representatives are typing their response, display a message on the chat screen that reads, “Representative is typing a message.” This will keep visitors informed and they will be less likely to question a delay in response time due to a lengthy message.

When live chat is implemented with usability in mind, it helps online retailers offer site visitors a measure of hand-holding, which in turn, could pave the way for minimizing cart abandonment and maximizing sales. Following these best practices can help make a good feature even more effective.


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