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:
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):
- 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.
If, after all that, synchronous, real-time, communication is what you
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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?
BACK TO TOP
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.