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Thinking of using chat to exchange information through a Web-site?

If you want chat to aid the exchange of information through your Web-site, you need to:
  • define 'information' for your Web-site and your visitors
  • research the specific information needs of actual and potential site visitors
  • consider the implications for the relationship between the site and its visitors, and for relationships between visitors.
The following list of questions may help (I developed them from categories used to analyse conversations on a sample of Web-based chat services for my MSc dissertation):
  • When and from where do actual or potential visitors access your site (or other sources of information about your organisation or the subject of your site)? For example:
    • if they are at work, they may have less time available (and may find scheduled and moderated chats or message-boards more useful than 24-hour open-access chat); for information on message-board systems, try WebBBS (you can see it in operation at Free Pint) or look at Poor Richard's site or Tucows - you might a freeware or shareware alternative.
    • if they are at home, they may have less powerful equipment and less up-to-date software; if they are in other countries, Internet connections may be less reliable or congested (technically robust and simple methods should have priority: HTML chat, like ChatPro, is simpler than Java programs like Volano, iChat or Spin, but is likely to be much slower and more frustrating)
  • Do actual or potential visitors have particular cultural characteristics that might influence their information needs and information-seeking behaviour? For example, do you currently find that you need particular social or conversational cues to make clients/visitors feel welcome?
  • Do you need to have a particular awareness of the individual visitor, for example, to collect contact information on potential customers, or to make arrangements to enable them to contact each other? Would a membership scheme be appropriate? Should there be a database of information on individuals which could serve both the Web-site and other purposes, or should people chatting simply record some background information about themselves for display on the Web-site?
  • What forms of discourse do you already use in interacting with visitors - one-to-one telephone conversations, question-and-answer meetings, seminar-style discussion? Do you simply intend to replicate these, or is some new format proposed? How would you get participants to abide by the format you have in mind - a metaphor? a set of rules?
  • Are the power relations between participants equal, unequal or unclear? What does this imply about ways to guide conversational behaviour, and how would you put such guidelines into practice? For example, does there need to be a visible moderator, or an 'expert' provider of information, or a representative of the site-owner? Do participants need to be encouraged to contribute, or to hold back to allow others to contribute? Is there any need to ban or block abusive users?
  • Do you find (from analysing current interactions with clients or visitors, or research by interviews or focus groups) a preponderance of a particular kind of information enquiry:
    • If people are asking mainly for straightforward concrete facts, does that mean the published information is incomplete, or open to misinterpretation?
    • If people are asking where to find information on your site, does this mean there is something wrong with your information structure? Is better indexing called for, or a search engine?
    • If enquiries suggest that people are looking for more subjective impressions, or perhaps reassurance, is this best achieved by the opportunity to talk to a person, or by more indirect means such as graphic design, or is there something missing in the published information?
    • If you expect actual or potential visitors to contribute as much as to seek information, what type of contribution is expected (statements of opinion, personal experience, links to other information sources)? Would it be useful to find a way of capturing this information for analysis?
    • If people are asking for published information to be clarified, or interpreted in the light of their individual circumstances, does this mean there is a problem in the content or presentation of published information, rather than a need for communication with a person?
    • If questions and answers appear to be more widely applicable than to the individual, would a message-board be more appropriate? Would it be useful to enable participants to copy or print a record of what is said? If scheduled chats are held with experts, would it be useful to publish transcripts?
  • Would it be useful to consider systems other than chat with a person, such as automated response systems? For more information, see You've got too much mail by J. Shillingford, in Guardian Online on 22 July 1999
If, after all that, synchronous, real-time, communication is what you need:
  • If the focus is on how the published information applies to individual circumstances, would it be more useful to link the Web-site to a telephone enquiry service? Examples are: Webline Communications or  Interactive Answers; there was an overview (Call of the very wild by T. Phillips) in Guardian Online on 19 August 1999. Similar services are HumanClick.com and TalktoaPerson.com.
  • What sort of background information would be useful? Will easy access be needed to some sort of 'profile' of the visitor/user, and if so, would you expect them to enter it ad hoc on every occasion, or should there be easy access to some sort of standing database?
  • Is conversation likely to include references to other Web-pages? If so, can links be activated within the chat program, or do participants need to be told to copy and paste them?
  • Is the subject matter likely to require private one-to-one communication? Some programs may provide separate 'rooms' or direct private chat: see, for example, Volano or iChat
  • Are visitors likely to be exploring the site while they chat? CoBrow allows them to do this where other programs do not, but all conversations would be open
  • What are your criteria for deciding whether adding chat is a success or not, and how will you monitor and assess your experience with it?

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Awareness, discourse and power relations are terms used to classify systems for informal co-operation through the Internet, by:
Chen, L. L. J and Gaines, B.R. Modeling and supporting virtual co-operative interaction through the World -Wide Web. In: Sudweeks, F., McLaughlin, M. and Rafaeli, S. (eds), Network and netplay; virtual groups on the Internet. Menlo Park, California: American Association for Artificial Intelligence/MIT Press, 1998, pp. 221 - 242.

Last updated 7 July 2002