Building an Online Chat App: 7 Tips for Success
Implementing a chat application on your site where your users can interact with each other in real-time is a fantastic service few sites take advantage. For example, LinkedIn has offered this service for years and is without a doubt one of the best features of the platform. So why do so few sites offer this service?
Building a chat application is actually not as hard as it sounds. Our team managed to build a fully functional chat facility in around a week recently for one of our clients Vuable, and the result was fantastic.
Not only were members of the Vuable platform able to interact with other members in real-time, store chat history, and engage with other platform users on a regular basis, but as a site, Vuable was able to differentiate themselves with this fantastic feature which most other sites in their industry don't offer.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics of building a chat application, what you should expect when requesting a development agency such as OSE to deliver your site, and how you can add to your chat application over time.
1. Spend time defining the exact feature set you’re looking for
Building a chat application is no different to building any other online service in the way that you have to clearly define all of your requirements. This means creating a check-list of all the features you need, right down to last detail. For example:
- If you want to include avatars for chat users?
- Sub titles for chat users?
- Enter on message send?
- Bubbles to represent you are typing a message
- Multi-chat room capability
- How chat history should work?
- If you are going to offer one-to-one or one-to-many chat?
- Whether you want to use emoji’s?, and
- Whether you’re going to store and send attachments?
These of course are just a few of the common requirements when building a chat application, but it’s important to break down what you’re looking for to ensure you and your developers are on the same page.
2. Review your development options
If this is your first time building an online chat facility you may not be aware that there’s more than one option when it comes to choosing the technology that will make your chat application work.
For example, you may choose to use a socket-based approach, or you may choose to use what’s called an Ajax-based approach to implement your app. Each of these options has their pros and cons, but it’s important you take the time to understand these and walk through them with your developers.
We really like services such as socket.io which come pre-built with a number of tested functionalities specifically designed for chat applications, so may be something you want to do some reading on if you’re considering a chat app for your site.
3. Security is a “must” for online chat applications
These days online security is a requirement, not just a ‘nice to have’, and that includes your online chat application.
This means that if you’re looking to add a member chat service on your site, you should make sure:
- Your site is using an SSL certificate
- Your chat messages are being sent over secure channels
- That your chat history is being stored in a secure database which is routinely backed up
- That you’re monitoring your server for bots or hackers looking to extract information which may be considered confidential, private or personally identifiable, and
- That you include terms and conditions of use on your site that protect you in the event something does go wrong
4. Design matters
Gone are the days when it was simply enough to add chat functionality on your site, it has to look great and fit in with your overall site design too.
By taking the time to work with your web designer to craft a solution that fits in with your overall theme and doesn’t look like it’s just come out an ‘early 90’s chat nightmare’ is really important, otherwise your users just won’t take an interest.
For example, the below chat facility built for Vuable fitted in really well with their overall site design and what they were wanting to achieve. It took advantage of avatars, a clean and crisp design, and a number of unique features the client directly requested as part of the chat app.
5. Chat rooms is another important concept you need to understand
Think of a chat room as a conversation between one or more participants. This is an important thing to understand when developing a chat service, because it can cause a number of technical issues if not handled properly. For example:
- What happens when a chat participant leaves a chat?
- What happens if a chat participant deletes their chat history?
- Can more than one person be involved in a chat?
- Do chat rooms expire, and if so after how long?
- Can a chat history between multiple users be re-instated in a new chat room based on the stored history?
If your head is spinning slightly, we totally understand, but it’s important to map out the functionality of your chat application with your developers prior to beginning development. This can avoid significant re-works and also assist in creating a better application basis for the future.
6. What performance capabilities should you expect from your chat app?
If this is your first time building a chat application, then you may be wondering what your app might be capable of? After all, you don’t want to find out during testing that your chat app can only handle a few simultaneous chats and that it causes your site to crash.
If you go the socket route, a lot of this is handled and comes down to configuration, server capacity and ensuring your socket server runs continuously on your site. However, if you choose an Ajax-based system, you may be hitting your database regularly which may cause lag times on your chat app and across your site, so you might want to consider a secondary server to manage performance.
If you’re looking to build a chat app, make sure you speak to your developers and establish a baseline for performance. This is a critical factor when scaling your application and your website as a whole. Service such as Amazon Web Services are excellent for scalable application hosting, so feel free to reach out for advice in this area.
7. Seamless integration with the rest of your site will ‘give you the edge’
Chat applications have a bad reputation of standing out like a 'sore thumb' if not seamlessly integrated into an organisations’ website. After all, the functionality, general layout and way in which you interact with a chat application is totally different to that of a website and is more like an advanced text messaging service, so it’s understandable this happens from time to time.
To avoid falling victim to this curse, we recommend taking the time to design a well-planned chat application using a design service such as Invision. At OSE we use Invision regularly when we are developing complex screen designs with advanced functionality like those involved in a chat app, and it really helps.
BONUS: How much will my chat app cost?
At OSE we were able to stand up a fully functional chat application in around a week. This of course does not include design which is usually half a day to a day to map out the look and feel of a service like this. This is of courses is a pretty tight deadline, so depending upon who you're dealing with and their in-house capability your chat app may take a little longer, especially if you're looking for more than just basic functionality, but this gives you an idea of the effort and costing you're up for.
If you're looking to get a chat application built for your website, why not get in contact with the team at OSE for a confidential discussion. We have experience in this niche area and know what to look for when it comes to real-time chat applications.