Monday, 13 January 2014

Online Chat in Libraries - Making a Decision!

Scarily I've now been in my new post for nearly ten months  and having passed my probationary period Bath is going to be home, at least for the foreseeable future. 

In this time I've taken on many jobs, some new, some a development of previous tasks, some downright mundane. I've learnt a lot, about managment and running buildings and about the huge machine that is the HE environment. What I haven't enjoyed so much is the lack of opportunity to use the knowledge I value as a librarian, namely the skills I have developed in the areas of digital services, teaching and training.

A rare exception to this was provided in the form of a project to introduce an online chat service that would become part of the now published new look website. Originally initiated  a year or so previously the project had fallen by the way side. This was partly due to the withdrawal of the Meebo solution, at the time the preferred option, and partly beccause of some signifcant staffing changes that stretched the service for a while. This past year our E-Resources Librarian and myself picked up on the work already carried out and have since managed to get a Chat service live.

Currently under going a soft launch we have chat widgets available on both our website and embedded in the Discovery tool.  The service is staffed weekdays 10am-2pm and at the moment resourced by our librarian team.  Much of the technical work to get the service live was under taken by our E-Resources Librarian and a willing university web team.  Although it is possible to use chat services 'straight out of the box' a bit of web development knowledge is vital to make the most of the service.  My role, since the exploratory stage of the project, has been more logistical, devising the rotas, setting up users on the system and ensuring a knowledge bank was in place prior to the launch. 

This exploratory period has been considerable and looking back could certainly been undertaken in less time if other projects hadn't been concurrently underway. We progressed  over a period of months, rather than weeks, and looking back I consider that we spent more time on this stage than we maybe should have. 

Stage 1. Initial Investigation. This included a basic literature search and a web search for availble products. The results were listed against a grid of criteria including
  • Website integration through customisable widgets
  • Additional integration (eg SMS, twitter, Facebook)
  • Chat transfer
  • Transcript logging
  • Monitoring and statistics
  • Desktop sharing and file transfer
  • Out of hours reciprocal cover (or paid)
  • Cost
The available products we found included: 

  • Question Point (OCLC)
  • Libraryh3lp
  • Libchat/LibAnswers (Springshare)
  • VRLplus/Refchatter
  • Zoho Chat (free)
  • LivePerson
Other services which we've since become aware of are include:
  • Live Chat from Comm100
  • Zopim
  • Zoho Livedesk, a more sophisticated, paid for option of Zoho Chat. 
Stage 2. Shortlisting and Feedback. 
For us this meant identifying which of the services could meet our needs and talking to people who were already using them. It was esepcially helpful to use the chat services themselves, in order to see the customer experience. I did a lot of this work myself and at the same time took the opportunity to investigate  how other universities staffed and promoted their services, what adjustments they had made since launching it. Thanks to everyone who helped with this stage! 

At this point we also refined our criteria, identifying those that would be essential rather than desirable, leaving us with the list below. 
  • Customisable widgets, both fixed and pop up
  • Chat transfer
  • Transcript logging
  • Monitoring and statistics
  • File transfer
  • Cost
Stage 3.  Trialling and Testing
Based on the data we had collected we decided on two systems to trial and test. After a few problems getting the java script to behave we managed to get both the trials up and functioning and involved the wider team by asking them to feedback on what they thought of the usability and appearance. The E-Resources Librarian and myself also tested the systems although if I'm honest it was difficult to get a real sense of how the admin systems would behave in a live scenario with multiple users. With hindsight it might have been more beneficial to go and view the shortlisted systems in a live environment.

We trialled LibChat (with Libanswers) and Libraryh3lp, eventually deciding to opt for Libraryh3lp. This decision was partly based on the simplicity of it's admin systems, the availability of the criteria we had previously determined and ultimately it's cost. Although it's statistics and widget modules were more basic than the LibChat option the relatively low cost of Libraryh3lp allowed us to purchase it with little risk.  Take up of the chat service is still an unknown but the nature of the system allows us to upgrade to a more sophisticated system should we need to in the future. 

It's at this point that I'll be moving onto the logistics of setting up a chat service within a relatively small library service, the non technical decisions that needed to be made and the problems we faced in providing the service. I'll be discussing in my next post and hopefully finishing with a post reviewing the soft launch in a few months. Happy reading!

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