Once upon a time, chat rooms were the pinnacle of digital social interaction. Fast forward a few years, and real-time chat isn't just confined to specific platforms — it's an essential part of almost every digital experience. From dating and delivery apps to live sports streaming, real-time chat is now a standard expectation, not a novelty.
The evolution of chat into an integrated component of user experience makes sense. It mirrors the way we communicate in real life — instantaneous and interactive.
However, when these real-time interactions fail to live up to expectations, it can cause a ripple effect, impacting user engagement and retention.
Practically, real-time chat represents a synchronous communication interface, where messages are instantly relayed and displayed amongst participants, enabling dynamic interactions mimicking in-person conversations.
However, building a seamless real-time chat experience is a complex task that involves numerous technical components.
Technical concepts behind real-time chat
Let’s understand the foundations of what goes into building a real-time chat: The efficiency of real-time chat is based on four crucial pillars: low latency delivery, message ordering and delivery guarantee, scalability and reliability.
Low Latency Delivery:
This refers to the time it takes for a message to travel from the sender to the recipient. In a real-time chat system, the lower the latency, the faster the message delivery. This speed greatly impacts the 'real-time' feel of the chat, making interactions seamless and instantaneous. To put it simply, the lower the latency, the better the user experience.
Message Ordering and Delivery Guarantee:
In a fluid conversation, the order of the messages matters. Real-time chat systems need to ensure that messages are not just delivered promptly but also in the right order. It's equally important for the system to guarantee that the messages are indeed delivered, ensuring nothing gets lost in transit, which could lead to confusion or interrupted conversations.
As the number of users or the volume of messages increases, the chat system must be able to scale and handle this growth without compromising on speed or efficiency. Equally, when the user volume decreases, the system should be able to scale down seamlessly.
Users should be able to trust the chat system to work flawlessly at any given time. This involves ensuring the system is robust enough to handle potential failures and can recover quickly without significantly affecting the user experience.
Building blocks of a real-time chat app
Now that we have an idea of what forms the foundations of a real-time chat experience, let’s understand what are all the additional building blocks one must build to have a fully functional chat application. Creating a robust real-time chat application involves more than just ensuring fast message delivery. Here are the essential components:
As discussed, the ability to send/recieve messages realtime in a 1:1 or a group chat environment is the most critical component.
Authentication and User Management:
A real-time chat needs to be integrated with the core product's user management system. It involves authenticating users, managing their identities in the chat, and ensuring the security and privacy of their conversations.
Message Storage and persistent chat:
To ensure a persistent chat history, the chat system needs to store messages effectively. Users should be able to access their past conversations accurately and quickly. This involves storing the messages in a database and retrieving them as and when required.
Modern real-time chat apps have expanded beyond text-based interactions. Today, platforms like Slack and WhatsApp have set expectations for features like threads, GIFs, reactions, and audio messages. These features add depth to conversations, helping mimic in-person interactions and offer an engaging chat experience.
Push notifications alert users to new messages and keep them engaged with the chat even when they're not actively using the app. This feature is important in ensuring ongoing user engagement and interaction.
How Real-time chat can impact business growth:
Real-time chat is far from a mere add-on; it's a heavyweight that packs a punch in shaping core business functionalities.
A marketplace like Boatyard exemplifies this. Here, real-time chat isn't just a talk-box; it's a powerhouse negotiation platform. Buyers and sellers on Boatyard needn't settle for mere texts; they share boat specifics, ping offers, and clinch deals right within the chat window. The result? Swift transactions and a remarkable user experience.
For dating apps like Shaadi.com, real-time chat is more than just an instant conversation tool. It's an engagement magnet. The chat presence indicator cues users into potential match availability, sparking timely interactions. But it doesn't stop there. Shaadi.com smartly weaves chat presence data into their matching algorithm, enhancing the precision of their core offering - meaningful matches.
Dive into the realm of community apps, and you find NoBroker Hood. Here, real-time chat isn't just a conversation starter; it's a community builder. A spontaneous chat with the neighbour, a quick society-issue discussion, or a fast negotiation with local vendors, all on the app, amplifies its overall appeal. The result? Heightened app stickiness and robust user engagement.
These experiences underscore how real-time chat fuels user engagement and business growth. In fact, these successful platforms bank on CometChat to power their real-time communication needs.
Key Features: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Real-Time Chat System
The caliber of a real-time chat system isn't black and white - it's a spectrum. At one extreme, you have the bare-minimum chat box. At the other, a powerful, feature-rich system that can give Slack or WhatsApp a run for their money.
Let's dissect the components of a top-tier real-time chat system:
Basic, Must-Have Capabilities:
The bread and butter of a chat system, it enables users to exchange messages directly.
An interactive arena for multiple users to engage in simultaneous conversations.
Message History and Search:
A feature that lets users effortlessly navigate through past messages across all chat channels.
File and Media Sharing:
A tool to upload and distribute files, web links, and multimedia clips in chat channels.
A window for users to display their status - online, away, do not disturb, or invisible.
Alerts and Notifications:
A mechanism to notify users about new messages or mentions in a chat channel via device alerts.
A control center for administrators to manage chat channels, enforce terms of usage, flag inappropriate messages, and ban users if required.
Advanced, Engagement-Boosting Capabilities:
Reactions and Emojis:
An interactive palette for users to express more with a wide array of reactions and emojis.
Voice and Video Calling:
A channel for users to switch to voice or video calls for more personal, real-time conversations.
A security shield guaranteeing secure conversations with end-to-end encryption.
Edit and Delete Messages:
A feature that hands over control to users to modify or remove their messages.
Delivery and Read Receipts:
A tracking tool for users to monitor their message status with delivery and read receipt alerts.
AI-Assisted Smart Replies:
A smart assistant generating reply suggestions for faster responses and stickier conversations.
Here is a complete list of features to have in your real-time application.
Crafting Your Real-Time Chat: Build from Scratch or Turn to SDKs?
This question lurks in every corner of the business sphere: Do we build it from scratch, believing in our unique needs, or do we lean on third-party SDKs? Let's scroll this debate through the lens of real-time chat.
Building from Scratch: A Path Fraught with Challenges
Sometimes, the self-made route seems the road to glory, especially when you believe your business, customers, and use cases are unique. But tread carefully when it comes to real-time chat. Here's why:
Chat Isn't Your Core Product: Venturing into in-house chat means shifting resources from your core product. The time, effort, and expertise are better invested in enhancing your main offering.
Slower Time to Market: In-house real-time chat is a long, winding road. Design, development, testing, and deployment stages can delay your product's entry to the market. In contrast, pre-built chat SDKs fast-track the process.
Ballooning Maintenance Cost: An in-house chat isn't a set-it-and-forget-it deal. Continuous monitoring, updates, security checks - they all demand a dedicated team, adding to your operational cost.
Scaling Hurdles: As your user base grows, the demands on your real-time chat multiply. Scaling an in-house solution can mean infrastructure upgrades, cost spikes, and potential downtime. Third-party solutions, however, are built to scale smoothly.
Innovation Gap: Chat solution providers are innovation hotbeds. Developing in-house might mean missing out on cutting-edge features. Your team might lack the bandwidth or expertise to integrate such advancements swiftly.
Using a Chat SDK: The Smarter Route
Chat SDKs have come a long way in the last decade, allowing businesses to embed real-time chat effortlessly. They do more than simplify development - they deliver a top-notch communication experience. Here's what to look for when choosing a Chat SDK:
Ease of Integration: Look for clear documentation, compatibility with your tech stack, and straightforward setup processes.
Rich Messaging Features: Check for features like private chats, group chats, multimedia messages, and real-time updates. Your users will thank you.
Engagement and Interaction: Assess the SDK's potential to drive user engagement. Features like reactions, emoji support, read receipts, and typing indicators can turbocharge the chat experience.
UI Kits: Check for pre-designed UI components. UI kits can speed up development time and ensure an intuitive interface.
Reliability and Performance: Ensure high uptime, fast message delivery, and scalability. Your users will appreciate a reliable, high-performance chat feature.
Security and Compliance: Ensure the SDK meets industry security standards and regulations like GDPR, CCPA, and HIPAA.
Pricing: Don't just consider the initial cost. Factor in long-term expenses associated with scaling, maintenance, and additional features.
In a nutshell, real-time chat has evolved from an auxiliary tool to an engagement dynamite. While the charm of building it yourself may be tempting, remember that the path is lined with challenges. On the other hand, third-party SDKs not only ease the journey but also enrich it with top-tier features, secure functionalities, and stable performance. In essence, for businesses aiming to amp up their user communication and experience, hitching their wagon to a proven real-time chat solution like CometChat isn't just smart - it's game-changing.
Director of Inbound Marketing , CometChat