Skip to main content

How users feel about webchat

A webchat saying 'Hi you're chatting with Sam at DWP. What can I help with today?' The response is 'I don't know my national insurance number'

Webchat is a channel for support that allows users to talk to advisers through real-time online text chat. The Government as a Platform team recently carried out a discovery into how services around government currently provide webchat to help support their users.

We observed there was an opportunity to create service patterns to help teams buying and operating webchat support. We ran an alpha to learn from departments that have been running webchat and to learn what works for users.

What we did

We ran 4 rounds of research with users for the alpha. We wanted to understand what they expect from webchat, and what makes a webchat usable. We spoke to advisers working in support or contact centres who use webchat, their managers, the teams implementing webchat platforms, and service teams supported by webchat.

To get an idea of potential design and usability patterns that might arise, we tried some commercial webchat services. We used their standard designs and then customised them to look and feel more like GOV.UK. Research was split between desktop and mobile applications.

In addition, we created our own webchat prototype to experiment with different design ideas.

The user’s view

Some people told us they use webchat as a primary support channel. But most of the participants told us they’d prefer to make a phone call.

Expectations about webchat depend on previous experience. If people have had a positive outcome, they’re more likely to try it again - even if it was with a different company.

‘Webchat’ as a term isn’t that well understood. A common expectation was that it would have the same sense of immediacy as a phone call. But, in reality, advisers are often handling several webchats at once. This can result in a lag between replies, which can put some users off.

Some users found it hard to believe it was a human and not a software program replying to them over webchat. Users said if it was a robot replying, they didn’t trust that the response would be accurate or resolve their problem.

We looked at ways to convince users they were talking to a human. This could be through including the adviser’s name, showing that the adviser is typing a reply, or changing the language advisers use to respond to users.

As part of this discovery, we asked users to input some personal or financial information into webchat. Many users were comfortable with this but others weren’t. They didn’t trust the webchat in the same way they would an adviser on the phone, or a traditional form on a website.

The adviser’s view

Advisers who are good at typing told us that they like to use webchat. It gives them more time to consider the correct response, and removes some of the emotional stress of telephone or face-to-face support.

Advisers said they find the functionality in modern contact centre software helpful. In particular, they appreciate features that allow them to handle several webchats at once, such as:

  • a search engine that works well
  • having quick and easy access to information about the user’s interaction with the service before they asked a webchat adviser for help
  • having pre-written responses for common problems

However, there are issues that limit webchat advisers in government from making the most of it. Many existing government IT systems only allow advisers to look up one user’s record at a time - stopping advisers from helping more than one user at the same time.

The manager’s view

Contact centre managers have to plan how many advisers are answering webchats through the week. They do this by monitoring demand and measuring the efficiency of teams of advisers. However, metrics used to monitor phone support aren’t as effective with webchat. For example, the length of a phone call versus the length of a text chat isn’t a fair comparison.

Managers are taking advantage of the move to webchat to introduce new ways of working, such as working from home for advisers. This could allow contact centre managers to extend the hours that support is available.

The service team’s view

It’s important that the teams who build and support services pay close attention to the problems users are having. It’s easier for a service team to run through the transcripts of webchat sessions than to listen to hours of audio calls. It means service teams can look at the data themselves and do not have to wait for weekly or monthly management reporting. It can be quicker to understand service problems with webchat (as the page and previous user interactions are stored) than looking at issues dealt with by telephone.

Front-to-back service design

User support is a vital part of providing digital services. We need to look in more depth at how best to improve services based on their users’ needs for support. The biggest user benefits stem from making the service better, rather than just focusing on improving support.

Find out more

If you’re working on a government service using webchat, or thinking of implementing it, get in touch to find out more.

We’ll also be blogging more on the Government as a Platform blog about our webchat alpha over the next few weeks.

Follow Chris on Twitter and don’t forget to sign up for email alerts.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by laurie posted on

    web chat is great for people with specific disabilities, such as hard of hearing or deaf, but many of the systems available don't seem to work well with screen readers or large type on screen. More needs to be done around accessibility for all.

  2. Comment by John posted on

    As an end user of web chat on various sites, I find a valuable feature of web chat is the ability to keep a record of the conversation. Good services make this easy.

  3. Comment by Lyndon posted on

    As I am deaf myself, I have always look for web chat on service providers' or Govt websites as it will make life bit easier for me to communicate. I occasionally use them - imagine how many deaf or hard of hearing people could benefit from it. (1 in 7 people have a hearing loss in the UK). Please be optimistic and positive to have Web chat included! Thanks.

  4. Comment by Peter Flynn posted on

    #1 It must work on *all* platforms. No exceptions, no excuses.

  5. Comment by Julie Pierce posted on

    But we need to be aware of this sort of tech, as we do (expect to) get more in the way of bots to address these sorts of needs.