With the advent of the Internet came a new method of communication between customers and companies: the chat feature. Whether with AI, human employees, or a combination, most sites and apps now have a chat feature to get started when contacting customer service. It’s become common practice and is very accessible to some users, especially users who are Deaf or have hearing disabilities.
The chat feature allows users to type out their requests instead of making a phone call, which can be difficult for people with hearing loss. It gives great service and is often highlighted on the home page rather than buried within the contact pages. So what are the pros and cons of the chat feature when it comes to accessibility?
First and foremost, a well-implemented chat can be very helpful for users with disabilities. It allows for equal access to customer service that might otherwise be blocked by having only a phone number. Users who have disabilities that prevent them from using a phone, or make using a phone difficult, can instead utilize chat to have the same real-time discussion with a customer service representative that they might have had on the phone.
Second, chat can be customizable to be further accessible. It’s usually simple to add programming to include or remove sounds, lights, or colors that may add to or detract from accessibility, depending on your goal. It’s also easier to make changes if you’ve received complaints than to overhaul an entire phone system.
Thirdly, when you become accessible to all, you will increase your customer base and loyalty. When customers have their problems resolved without having undue burdens placed on them, they are far more likely to shop from or do business with you again. Having a chat-based customer service option on your website is a great way to be accessible and earn the appreciation of customers with disabilities.
Additionally, chat can also be simple. With phone-based customer service, there is usually a phone tree where customers must press certain buttons to get where they’re going. This is an accessibility barrier to people with disabilities who cannot operate a phone keypad or hear the instructions. Chat-based customer service offers the same level of help without that barrier. Customers can simply begin talking to an agent right away.
Most of the cons of chat-based customer service come from a poorly-designed or poorly-implemented chat. If you don’t research and test multiple times before making the chat live, you’ll run into multiple problems and become less accessible in the long run.
If your chat cannot be navigated by a keyboard alone, it is not accessible. Many people use keyboard shortcuts to use their computers, and if the keyboard cannot access your chat, you have created a barrier to accessibility. Having all content operable through a keyboard is also WCAG compliant.
Poor color contrast may prevent a user with disabilities from reading the chat due to the colors presented on the screen. Using interesting colors might look good visually, but it’s not accessible, especially under WCAG. Be sure to run your colors under a color contrast checker if you’re unsure to avoid scenarios where you wind up being inaccessible due to poor color contrast.
Other scenarios that might make your chat inaccessible are being unable to close the chat dialog, too much text in the chat dialog box for a screen reader to read easily, and improperly labeled ARIA attributes. All of these can be avoided with rigorous testing before launch.
Outside of potentially being inaccessible, some downsides of chat are that it feels impersonal compared to a phone call, especially if the chat is begun by a chatbot instead of a real person immediately. You can mitigate this by lessening your use of chatbots and increasing your use of real employees to give as much life to the chat as possible.
There are many pros and cons to chat-based customer service. A well-implemented chat can mean the difference between being accessible and not being accessible. However, a poorly-implemented chat can add an additional barrier to accessibility. Be sure to test your chat before deploying it to be sure it’s completely accessible to all.