The vision for SUMO – Part 8: Live Chat

We’ve reached the last part of this comprehensive vision for the scope and role of the SUMO project moving forward. This part is dedicated to the most social form of text based user-to-user support: Live Chat.

If a problem isn’t yet covered in the Knowledge Base, or if the instructions in the article are too hard to understand, Live Chat is a powerful way for users to get touch with Firefox experts and get hands-on assistance in solving their problems.

Live Chat can also be a very fun way for contributors to provide support. Contributors helping out with Live Chat don’t just help users, they talk to each other in the backchannel as well, providing assistance to other helpers whenever needed. This means that although you’re usually the only one interacting with the user you’re helping, you’re never alone.

An important aspect — and one of the most interesting in my opinion — about Live Chat is that it is instrumental in detecting new and emerging support issues that are not yet covered in the Knowledge Base. The people helping out with Live Chat, along with helpers of the Support Forum, are those closest of all to what is going on — they really are the ones with their finger on the pulse, if you will.

However, without enough contributors, Live Chat has the risk of giving the user a negative experience, principally because of long waiting times or limited hours of operation. Without contributors, Live Chat can never be successful. We think the two keys to attracting contributors are:

  1. to make contributing as straightforward as possible;
  2. to minimize the load on the contributors by using their time as efficiently as possible – we do this with the support funnel. More specifically, we want to make sure that people search the Knowledge Base (and Support Forum) before turning to Live Chat, so helpers aren’t overwhelmed by the number of users requesting assistance.

I’ve already covered the support funnel in previous blog posts, so this time I’ll focus on how we can make contributing to Live Chat as simple and fun as possible. As always, we already have some ideas, but we really need your feedback as well.

Fully integrated help client

In order to help out with Live Chat today, you need to install an open source Java-based chat client called Spark. This means that unlike the Knowledge Base or the Support Forum, people need to learn how to install, configure, and use a separate application in order to get started with helping people with Live Chat. While the current solution certainly works, it is far from ideal for a number of reasons:

  • It’s an unnecessary technical barrier and yet another application installed on peoples’ computers.
  • It’s poorly integrated with the rest of SUMO, meaning, among other things, that people helping out with Live Chat may not be aware of the support funnel and the most commonly reported problems and solutions already documented in the Knowledge Base.
  • The software isn’t custom-made for our needs, meaning for example that it’s not straightforward for helpers to find the backchannel where other helpers hang out.
  • We rely on good documentation to ensure that helpers understand where they should look for assistance and relevant information.
  • We have a separate log in for Live Chat than the rest of SUMO.

Replacing Spark with something integrated into the SUMO website itself would give us a solution that is pre-configured for our particular needs, do away with the need for separate software, and seamlessly integrate information about weekly common issues and other things relevant for our helpers. The barrier of entry would be reduced significantly.

Simple scheduling solution

Today we have specific times of the day when we’re sure to be open — our “hours of operation” for Live Chat. This is helpful for contributors as they know when they can expect other people to be online. After all, just like many other things in life, Live Chat shouldn’t be a solitary activity.

The ideal solution would be if people could just log in and help out whenever they wanted to, but that would require lots and lots of helpers. We’re not quite there yet, and in the meantime we need a way to make the existing helpers gather around certain scheduled hours naturally. However, the hours of operation might not fit everyone, so we need something that will allow people to commit to specific time slots that are convenient for them, while still seeing which slots other people have offered to take or would like to take — think of it as a shared calendar.

This would give helpers the ability to plan ahead of time when they want to help out, based on what time slots other helpers have already committed to. We think this will encourage collaboration and make Live Chat even more fun. Furthermore, the official hours of operation could then be based on the confirmed schedule time slots, rather than predefined hours we’re using today. And from a user’s point of view, the relevant info is when Live Chat will open next, not a predictable weekly schedule.

Other improvements

Of course, integrating the help client and adding a capability to assist volunteers in being able to plan their contribution of time are just a couple of things we can do to make things simpler. Here are some other things we have in mind:

  • Support for other languages than English — Both users and helpers often speak more than one language. Ideally, users would simply select which languages they understand from the list of currently available languages. That list of available languages would itself be based on which helpers are currently logged on.
  • Add a lower limit of the number of helpers that needs to be logged on before Live Chat opens, to ensure a good support experience. This way, we can control the helper/user ratio and thus avoid helpers burnout. In other words, if there are lots of users in need of help, we’d need more helpers before we opened Live Chat, to ensure that the waiting times are not unreasonable.
  • Automatically save chat logs, along with user happiness rating and whether or not the problem was solved. This would allow us to make better use of the Live Chat stats about common Firefox problems. It would also allow us to tell which helpers are doing a great job, and which ones need a little more training.

Have you tested Live Chat already? If so, what did you like about it, and what would you want to change? We’d love to hear your thoughts, and whether or not you think our ideas are in line with what you’re seeing, or if you have other ideas we haven’t covered here.  And if you haven’t tried it yet, consider this a written invitation. :)