Washington: Small cues that display a user's transaction history may help a website feel almost as interactive as chatting with an online customer service agent, paving the way for more cost-effective websites, researchers, including one of Indian-origin, have found.
"One of the challenges with online interactivity is trying to imbue the site with a sense of contingency - the back-and-forth feel of a real conversation," said S Shyam Sundar, professor at the Pennsylvania State University.
"What we found is that providing some information about a user's interaction history on the site can offer a sense of conversation," said Sundar.
Interactivity is natural in both actual face-to-face and video streamed conversations, but developers have found it challenging to foster this type of interaction in static websites, according to Sundar.
In traditional conversations, a message is usually met with a response, creating a thread of interconnected messages.
Researchers found that visitors to an online movie search site considered a version of the site that displayed recent interaction history more engaging and said the site fostered better dialogue than sites with no or limited history.
As long as this interactivity was strong enough, the presence of a chat function with a live person or chatbot did not add appreciably to user experience of the site.
"The addition of a chat agent increases the perception of interactivity. But it does not increase the sense of dialogue or user engagement when the site already offers detailed interaction history," Sundar said.
Study participants also did not find a human chat agent to be any better than a chatbot, as long as interaction history was available, according to Sundar.
The study could lead to more cost-effective solutions for businesses that want to make their sites more engaging, but have limited funds to programme a chatbot or hire a human customer service employee, researchers said.
The researchers asked 110 participants, who had an average age of 21, to use an online movie store to help them choose a movie to rent.
They could browse, use the search engine, or ask an assistant, which was either an online chatbot or a human assistant.
To carry out the assignment, participants were assigned one of five different versions of the site, ranging from a low-interaction sites without interaction history to high-interaction sites with interaction history and the ability to chat with a human agent.
Participants who interacted with the agent or the chatbot said the site was more interactive than the subjects who used the site without the chat feature. But, this did not translate into better attitudes toward the site.
"Instead, interaction history seems to foster positive attitudes by giving users the impression of a conversation," said Sundar.
The findings appear in the journal Communication Research.