DotNetLiveHelp Product Review

By Scott Lysle May 23 2007
It is a solution providing an AJAX enabled chat interface allowing a browser based client to communicate with an operator assigned to assist that client; as such it forms the basis for an online help or inquiry system.
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What is .netLIVEHELP?

It is a solution providing an AJAX enabled chat interface allowing a browser based client to communicate with an operator assigned to assist that client; as such it forms the basis for an online help or inquiry system although it could be pressed into duty performing other functions as well (anything from an advice column to a "Psychic Friends" hotline).  It could be used in any sort of situation requiring real-time human operator intervention through normal didactic communication.

On the client piece, the user merely clicks a button to trigger a request for operator assistance.  This request appears in the operator's console along with the options to accept or deny the request (or obtain more information).  Server side code manages the communication between the chat system and database.  Once a request for a chat session is submitted and approved, the operator and client are placed into a common chat session through which both may communicate and through which the operator may feed files and images to the client.

Product Feature List

This feature list was scraped straight from the product help files.  The product is well conceived and executed; in my testing of both sides of the application I found it easy to field and operate although there were a few things that I would have liked to see; for example, the following list cites the X-copy deployment approach used as a feature; I would think that most casual users would prefer a guided installation that would configure (or walk them through configuring) the application settings and preferences, database connections, folder permissions, etc.

General Features:

  • Unlimited operators.
  • Unlimited departments.
  • Unlimited client chats
  • No monthly or service fees (outside of your regular hosting account).
  • Simple wizards for adding live help buttons to your site.
  • Ability to configure operating hours for each day or as fixed hours.
  • Automatically transfer chat requests to the next available operator if an operator does not answer for any reason.
  • If no operators are available a "leave a message" form is provided.
  • You may customize the leave a message link to direct to any web page if you have existing infrastructure in place for such cases (email, web based systems).
  • You can configure an automatic logout such that the operator is automatically logged out after x number of missed chats to ensure that future chats are not routed to the non responsive operator.
  • Intelligent request assignment routes new chat requests to the operators with the least number of active requests. Administrators can assign the maximum number of concurrent chat requests a given operator can handle which is also taken into consideration by the load balancing algorithm.
  • Independent of loading and skill assignments, the system will always route a new chat request to an operator without any current chats and assign new requests to the operator who has the least recent activity for load balancing purposes.
  • In addition to the chat button you can obtain, using a simple wizard, tracking links to include in your pages which will provide additional information on the user including the path and pages viewed in the site.
  • Statistics on departments and operators are available to evaluate operator performance.
  • Ability to control leave a message behavior to not link when live chat is not available, to link to the leave a message form, or to link to any page or site.
  • Chat image buttons can be defined on a per department basis for 3 states including: open chat, leave a message and closed chat.
  • Missed message handling enables a customer to leave a message if no operator is available through the provided admin customized form or for the customer to be linked to any other system. You may also control if a leave a message option is provided when chat is closed. Finally the administrator can configure if a session is marked as missed if no message is left or not.

Client (browser) chat interface:

  • Advanced AJAX chat interface without postback or flashes.
  • Works intuitively like MSN and other chat systems clients may be familiar with for line feed handling and supports message submit on enter.
  • Downlevel browser supports ensures a functional chat interface is rendered for those clients using older browsers that do not support new AJAX features.
  • Support for IE, Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape, Opera and Safari.
  • Ability for client to print or email chat transcripts. Email chat transcript supports token support and custom formatting from the operator console.
  • Clients can view images inline within the chat system.
  • Clients can get files through the chat interface.
  • Admin customizable form for pre-chat registration.
  • Admin customizable form for leave a message form should no operators be available to chat.
  • Inline and automatic thumbnail support for images (linked to full size version). Operator can easily send files or images to clients.  

Operator Console

  • Tray icon to indicate status.
  • Taskbar balloon tip to notify of new chat requests.
  • Option to minimize application to tray automatically so limited taskbar space is not taken.
  • Sound notification for new chat request.
  • Flashing window to notify of new chat request.
  • Operator auto logout if admin configurable number of assigned chats are missed.
  • Notification of logout with blinking taskbar so operator is away of any automated logout.
  • Ability for admin user to view a summary of all operators along with current chat status count. Admin user may also logout any operator.
  • Operator to operator chat enables operators to get instant assistance with other operators independent of their client chats.  
  • Canned messages can be defined at 3 levels: global, department and operator. Operator level canned messages are specific to that operator.  
  • Operators can manage images and files uploaded to the system.  
  • Operators can respond to missed chats via email within the .netLIVEHELP system including template support.
  • Mail server configuration (SMTP mail sends) with specific reply to address and authenticated SMTP settings set globally, at the department level or for individual operators enables flexible addressing. The most specific mail settings available will automatically be used.
  • Operator can customize the appearance and font and date inclusion for the chat messages to suit their needs (operator specific setting).
  • Ability to remember last login name.
  • Sessions list setting to display sessions past a specific date.
  • Separate roles for administrator and regular operators with different sets of options for each.  
  • Supports data exchange between a deployed web application and the operator console enabling viewing and editing of data within the web application. For example advanced integration with the .netCART shopping cart allows for viewing and editing of a customers shopping cart from the operator console interface to further assist them.  

Server Component

  • Supports xcopy deployment for easy installation (FTP files and run, no installer is required).
  • Supports medium trust for use on shared hosting providers supporting ASP.NET 2.0.
  • Scalable web service implementation supports multiple database backends for communication and message storage including MS Access, MS SQL Server, MySQL and Oracle.
  • Unlimited number of chat requests and operators within the system.
  • Independent timeouts can be set for inactive customer and inactive operator (the amount of time that without any chat submission the chat session will be considered abandoned by the operator or client.
  • A time can be set for when a new request is considered unanswered. It means that if assigned to an operator and not answered within x seconds it will return a response that no operators are available and provide an option to leave a message.
  • Optionally, the system can automatically transfer the request to the next available operator to answer to ensure the customer gets a prompt live chat so long as there is another available operator logged into .netLIVEHELP.
  • Comprehensive data exchange API enabling you to interface with your web application, independent of .netLIVEHELP, and have the operator console view / edit data from your application. 

User Experience

If operators are available, the client will be presented with a button indicating that it will open a request for a chat session with a live operator.  If no operators are available, the user will be presented with a button indicating that there are no available operators.  There is a client registration process in the example provided (name and email address are submitted to the system).  Once the chat request is made, the operator will be provided with an indication that there is a waiting request for chat from a client.  The operator may accept or reject the request through the console application.

Figure 1:  Operator Console with Active Chat Request

The previous figure shows a waiting request or a chat session.  Once the request is accepted through the console, both the client and operator are provided with a chat window through which they may engage in a real time, human assisted help session.

Once the chat window appears, the user or operator may fire off the first introduction.  The client chat window is shown in Figure 2.  As the user receives entries from the operator or enters and sends messages, the running transcript of the conversation appears in the upper region of the window in the form of color coded and named strings indicating the source of the comment.  The comments are generated and sent to the operator from the text area and send button at the bottom of the window.  The user may also print the transcript or have the entire account sent to a designated email account.

All in all, the interface is very simple and quite easily understood; it differs little from any other sort of instant messenger type of service and users of those tools will readily adapt to the use of this product.

The user may terminate the session at any time by merely clicking on the close X button; that is fine but it seems like logoff button might be preferred or supplied in addition to merely using the close X button.

Figure 2:  Client Chat Window

Figure 3:  Server Side (Operator) Chat Window

(Note additional options to load files and images, to use canned messages, and to reassign the chat)

The operator console is similar to the user's console but includes additional controls which allow the operator to submit files and images to the user.  Images appear inline within the chat transcript while files are presented by the addition of a hyperlink pointing to the submitted file.  In playing around with this, I linked in quite a variety of files just for the fun of it; the types included audio files, images, maps, word documents, and the like.  The only problem I encountered occurred when I attempted to load up a 40 MB video file.

Figure 4:  Loading an Image from the Operator Console

Figure 5:  Loading Files from the Operator Chat Window

Figure 6:  Uploading a MapPoint File Sent to the Client

Figure 7:  Running Media Files Sent to the Client

Figure 8:  What the client may see if there are no operators


Overall, I had a very favorable impression of the product; it works great and it is actually fun to play with.  If one wished to provide real-time operator assisted support for a product, this turnkey solution could supply that capability in no more time than is required to install and configure the components.  

If the whole shooting match had any issues at all, it would be the lack of an installer.  While most IT professionals would have little difficulty setting up and running the product, I believe that some companies which may operate their own website with little experience or interest in IT and without a permanent IT staff might find the installation a bit of a challenge even though the help file documents the process.  For that matter, the compiled help file may not run out of the box for a user without first unblocking the help file.  Anyway, minor issues, the product works and it works well.