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Get Back to Basics for User-Friendly WebRTC Apps

December 04, 2015

WebRTC is a simple way to add real-time voice and video into applications that are then available natively within a browser. But developers need to take into account essential considerations for making the experience feel seamless to the end user. The first step in that is considering what a user needs to do in order to initiate or join a call.

It seems simple, but anyone who has wrestled with a phone bridge or complex web conferencing set-ups knows that it’s very easy to get this aspect completely wrong. To avoid user frustration, start with first principles, according to AT&T: Button flows, dial tone cues and previews.

“Voice and video calls are usually initiated and joined with a button click. What should that button say, and what information can it tell the user?” the company pointed out in a blog. “The button’s text can indicate each user’s role in the call. ‘Begin call,’ tells me I’m the caller, initiating the session. ‘Join call’ tells me I’m the callee or one of many participants.”

The choice of words sets the user’s expectations for what they’re doing and what happens next, and those indicators need to be clear and specific.

There are also visual cues to consider, including specific colors (red for disconnect, green for connect) or style of a button (do all channels for communication have the same “look”?). It’s important to maintain consistency for attributes across the types of actions that a user can take.

AT&T noted that developers should also consider the simple concept of dial tone and ringing. In the POTS world, a dial-tone tells us that things are ready and that we can start dialing. And then we hear ringing if the call has gone through. In the office VoIP phone world, a tone generally lets us know if we’re dialing intra-office or outside, and whether the call is ringing. In the web-enabled calling world, there’s no standard signal for that—but if something isn’t built into the app, the user will get only silence, which can be confusing and disorienting. We are primed by a century-plus of telephone service to take silence to mean that there’s something wrong.

And conversely, apps should give the user an indicator if their ability to make a call is blocked somehow, say by a dead Internet connection.

Another aspect of traditional voice calls and ring indicators is duration.

“Over time we’ve established the expectation that the longer the ring indicator goes, the less likely it is someone will answer,” AT&T noted. “Or later on, it is more likely that the call will be intercepted by a voicemail system of some kind. So for your WebRTC-enabled calls on the web, how long can a person sit on a call waiting for another person to join? Do unanswered voice and video call invitations expire after some period of time? Is there some way for a person to automatically respond to a call when they are away?”

And finally, it’s also important to give the user the chance to preview and change their information that will be shown during a call. They may want to adjust their camera to better point at their face, they may want to hide their video or replace the video with an avatar, or they may choose to mute their microphone. Because of this, it’s important to show a preview of how that will appear, before the call goes live.

“Consider providing a ‘hair check’ step before joining the call,” AT&T noted. “A hair check prompt is what you might expect: an opportunity to check the messiness of your ‘do’ before joining a video call, saving you from a possibly embarrassing situation.”

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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