In general, the more communication tools you provide to your users, the better. Live chat features can give people a quick way to find content, get answers to questions, and seek help — and whether you’re manning your chat service with real humans or artificial intelligence (A.I.), some users will certainly appreciate the option.
But while live chat features can be accessible, they can also present barriers for users with disabilities. Here are a few tips for determining whether your chat client provides an inclusive experience.
1. Make sure you can operate the chat with a keyboard alone
Chat widgets are interactive components, so they need to support assistive technologies (AT). Many types of AT use a keyboard alone for navigation.
Screen readers, for example, output text as audio. Most people use the keyboard Tab and Shift+Tab commands to scroll through content — the mouse stays put. If the user cannot interact with the chat client with those commands, they can’t communicate.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) addresses keyboard accessibility in Success Criterion (2.1.1), “Keyboard.” All functionality of content must be operable through a keyboard interface alone.
Test your chat client by tabbing through your content. Some questions to keep in mind:
- If the chat doesn’t pop-up automatically, can I start a chat easily? You may need to add skip links and landmarks to give users a quick way to start a conversation.
- If the chat pops up automatically, does it receive keyboard focus?
- Can I exit the chat window with keyboard commands alone (such as the Esc key)?
- Can I see a clear visual focus indicator for chat buttons and other interactive elements?
Keyboard accessibility is essential, so test your content carefully. If you can’t intuitively control the chat window with your keyboard, neither can your users.
Related: What is Keyboard Accessibility?
2. Make sure your chat notifications don't rely on visuals or sound alone
Users should be informed when the chat window contains new information. Most chat clients play chimes or other sounds to indicate a response — but if the user has a hearing disability, or they’re browsing with sound disabled, a chime isn’t useful.
The chat client should provide a visual cue of some kind. You should also use ARIA live regions to inform assistive technologies of changing content, but remember that ARIA markup needs to be tested thoroughly; improper ARIA markup can hurt accessibility.
3. Check whether the chat client supports screen magnifiers
Users with vision disabilities may increase the scale of content with their browsers or with software screen magnifiers. Your chat window should support scaling, and the text should remain readable when the user zooms in.
WCAG 2.1 SC 1.4.4, “Resize Text,” requires that text can be resized without assistive technology up to 200 percent without the loss of content or functionality.
Testing this is fairly straightforward: Press Ctrl + to scale in on your page, then make sure that everything works as expected. You can also choose a chat client that provides controls for resizing text.
4. Give users enough time to interact the chatbox
Many chat clients timeout after a certain period of inactivity. It’s important to remember that people with disabilities may need more time to find information or write replies.
WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.1, “Timing Adjustable,” requires that websites inform users of time limits. Users should also have the ability to turn off, adjust, or extend time limits.
5. Wherever possible, provide alternatives to live chat
Some users may prefer to use chat to find the information they need, but others might prefer another option. If possible, provide a phone number, contact form, and other alternatives.
Depending on the nature of your content, you might also decide to provide a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) or other text-based resources. Ultimately, when people have options, they’re more likely to spend time on your website, and you’ll accommodate a wider variety of users.
To conform with WCAG 2.1 SC 3.2.6, “Consistent Help,” your help mechanisms should appear in the same order relative to other page content. This enables users to find the information they need as they browse from page to page. If your resources appear on a footer or sidebar, you’re already following this rule.
Remember, committing to digital accessibility expands your reach. When you incorporate live chat in an accessible way, everyone benefits — and you’ll communicate more effectively with your audience.