Livechat software – beyond Meebo

Currently many libraries are embeding Meebo and Meebo room chats on their websites (subject guides, home pages, opacs) to enable users to contact them.

The attractions of Meebo is clear it’s free and easy to setup and easy to use for both users and librarians. Users don’t have to install any additional software to chat, so the barrier of entry to use is lowered.

That said, Meebo and its cousins are still essentially mere extensions of Instant Messenging/chat software and are not customized for providing virtual customer support.For instance, commercial software such as Livechat, or Livehuman provide the following features not available in Meebo

  1. Real time traffic monitoring of sites visited by users
  2. Push websites and images
  3. Auto-chat proactively open a chat window with your customer
  4. Saving of transcripts, canned replys
  5. Support for multi-operators

Clearly these features can be useful to librarians, particular  #1,#2 and #4. Unfortunately such software is pricy, but  recently I discovered 2 free alternatives. One hosted solution (Hab.la) and one open source solution (Crafty Syntax Live support).

Crafty Syntax Live support is far more capable then the former but requires that you have access to your own servers to install the software. Hab.la requires only you sign up with them and insert code snipplets into the webpages you want to allow live support. This post will focus on the Hab.la

Hab.la provides two main kinds of codes to add. The default one is javascript based.(See non-javascript button version) You can customize it (where it appears, color, text message etc) but here is basically what a user on your webpage will see.

The nice thing about the livesupport bar on the bottom right of the screen is that it is a floating bar, as you scroll down the page, it will always appear on the right hand side (you can also choose to have it already in expanded view, see next screenshot).

All the user needs to do is to click on it, and the box expands to a chat window and he can communicate with the librarian on duty. If no-one is on duty, you can customize a message to leave a contact email, or a url to your web form for sending queries.

The librarian monitoring the chat, can receive the message and communicate with the user through anything from MSN, AIM, Gchat, Meebo or whatever is their favourite instant messaging application (desktop or web-based) without installing anything new.

One can also use multi-IM clients like Digsby or Pidgin . Here’s how it looks like in Pidgin when responding to the user. The librarian here is aarontay@hab.la

The librarian isn’t limited to passively waiting to respond to the user, whenever a new user appears on a monitored site, he will appear on the librarian chat buddy list together with the url he is currently on.

In theory it is possible, to watch a given user move throughout your site, notice that he is in trouble (by observing the urls he is going to) and then proactively offering to help.

The librarian can send urls to users in two ways. Firstly by a cutting and pasting the url in the chat. Or by pushing the url (enter the command !push) to the user. Pushing the url will automatically send the user to the url you sent. I personally don’t favour such a method, because it can be irriating to the user. Secondly, I find the pushing feature a bit erratic and can be unreliable.

One interesting feature of hab.la is that the same chat window follows the user as he moves throughout your site (pages that are tagged with the same hab.la code) ,so for instance, the librarian could suggest searches on your opac system, while the user could freely move through your opac search result pages and continue to communicate with the librarian. The librarian will also be able to monitor what pages the users are on.

But what about external databases pages from Scopus, Web of Science , Jstor etc? These are provided by external vendors and you can’t add the hab.la code to them.

Apparently the chat window will continue to appear on them as long as the user is accessing those pages by clicking on the url sent by the librarian. This is not possible with Meebo.

Drawbacks

My testing of Hab.la shows that it is not all a bed of roses however. It is still less stable then Meebo. Replies I sent, sometimes take as long as one minute before they appear on the user’s screen. Clicking on links sent through Hab.la are slow to load. I highly discourage the use of the push function (which automatically loads the users page with the url you choose)  has it is not only jarring to the user, but worse it’s very slow and unstable, often the page locks up.

The free version has another huge drawback, it supports up to only 5 concurrent users. It also lacks some of the more advanced features you expect in live support software like support for more than one operator etc.

Crafty Syntax Live support the free open source version has all this, at the cost of requring some technical skill to install.