Making chatbots accessible

Chatbots are everywhere online customer service is necessary. However, few are accessible to people with disabilities.

Anything a company can shift from an employee to a computer saves them money. That is why many retail companies are now using chatbots to answer simple questions to facilitate sales without having to involve humans who get a paycheck..

A chatbot is a piece of software that runs on either a mobile device or desktop, which companies use to conduct online chat conversations via text or text-to-speech, instead of providing direct contact with a live human agent.

  • With a well crafted chatbot, sometimes it’s difficult for users to tell if they are talking to a human or a computer.
  • Most chatbots provide the ability to transfer from the computer to a human when the ability of the chatbot information is exhausted.

Many people with hearing loss prefer to use chatbots because it reduces or eliminates the need to have a voice conversation to complete a transaction. For that population, having a chatbot is a more accessible form of getting information.

However, as companies have reduced customer support staff and replaced them with chatbots, many blind individuals and individuals with motor dexterity issues are finding chatbots the only way to communicate for support. If they aren’t accessible, well, those customers are out of luck.

For a chatbot to be completely accessible, the following areas must be reviewed.

The chatbot response authoring interface

Every chatbot has some type of interface where keywords can be logged and automatic answers are provided.

For example, if the chatbot sees the word “shipping” the response might be, “please give us your order number so we can tell you the status of your shipment” or something like that.

If the chatbot authoring interface is not accessible, no one who uses assistive technology will be able to participate in any role that requires accessing these questions. They might possibly also be excluded from participating in live customer support sessions where information being transferred from the chat bot needs to be accessed.

The chatbot user interface

Typically, the chatbot icon shows up in the lower right corner of every webpage. When you click on the icon (or the icon gets focus and you hit the return button) a chatbot UI comes up.

Olark Live Chat widget screen shot

To start the chat, the widget generally needs to collect three pieces of info:

  • Your name
  • Your email
  • Your question

An accessible chat widget must follow the WCAG guidelines pertaining to field labels, legends, error messaging, keyboard access, and status updates as well as the standard error messaging around color ratios and use, link text, focus order and non-text descriptions.

There are very few chat widgets with accessible user interfaces. The ones I know about include:

  1. Olark
  2. Apple’s iOS business chat
  3. Zendesk has an accessible chatbot per Kris Rivenburgh

Apple is restricted to iOS and larger customers. Zendesk is a comprehensive customer support platform that includes a chatbot component (and other aspects of the Zendesk suite have had past notorious accessibility issues that took forever to resolve), I typically recommend Olark as an accessible standalone chatbot solution with a low price-point for entry.

The chatbot answers

Chatbots are only as good as their ability to match good understandable answers to the questions asked by the users through the accessible chatbot user interface, and make sure those understandable answers get exposed through to assistive technology like screen readers and Braille notetakers.

The new COGA guidelines adopted into WCAG 2.2 will have requirements around simple language and sentence structure, which were identified years ago as chatbot best practices by the

Some plain language features include:

  • Language organization centered around the perspective of the read
  • Use of definite pronouns (you, I, we) and not indefinite pronouns (this, that, it)
  • Active voice
  • Short sentences and paragraphs
  • Common, everyday words with the least number of syllables possible
  • Easy-to-follow data features including lists, headers, and tables

It only makes sense to care about plain language even if you don’t care about accessibility. Every failed chatbot session will result in either a) a lost sale or b) an interaction with a paid human that could have been handled by a better chatbot response.

Make sure the chatbot to human handoff actually happens!

Even when chatbot user interfaces and responses are accessible, it takes a person with a disability on average three to five times as long to fill out the form. All of that information must be transferred from the chatbot to the human customer support agent if the chatbot decides it can’t handle the question and escalates it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started with chatbot and then the first thing the chipper CS agent says is “Hi, I’m Karen how can I help you today?” It’s as if none of that info made it from the chatbot to the Karen, and for someone who struggles with entering information, that is very, very frustrating.

It is not particularly difficult to make a chatbot accessible, so that begs the question, why aren’t there more of them?

Clearly, not enough people are asking for them.

So go out there and make your demands known. If you are choosing a new chatbot vendor, choose Olark and let the other contenders know why you chose them.