Semi-Automatic Chat: Speeding up reference questions in Pidgin

Monday, March 17th 2014

This is an expanded write-up of a lightning talk I presented at the 2014 LAUNC-CH conference:

Some background: We answer reference questions via chat at the reference desk using the amazing Libraryh3lp service. We log in and conduct chats with Pidgin. Libraryh3lp isn’t required for this to work, but Pidgin is.

A few months ago, a colleague asked me if there was a way to quickly cut and paste frequent responses into a chat. We end up repeating ourselves quite a bit when a common question comes up, and it seems rather inefficient.

Thankfully, Pidgin has a built-in plugin called (aptly enough) Text Replacement.

To get it up and running:

  • In Pidgin, go to the Tools menu.
  • Click Plugins.
  • Check the box next to Text Replacement.
  • While Text Replacement is highlighted, click Configure Plugin.

This is the screen where you configure your text replacement. The basic idea is that you set a keyword. Whenever a user types that keyword, Pidgin automatically replaces it with a pre-set block of text. So for example, in our case typing “$hi” will produce: “Hi, how can I help you today?”

To add a new replacement at the Configure screen:

  • Fill out the ‘you type’ and ‘you send’ boxes appropriately. I recommend starting each ‘you type’ trigger with a $, which should help avoid accidental replacements.
  • Uncheck the ‘only replace whole words’ box.
  • Click Add.
  • click Close.

Now your text replacement is active! Repeat as necessary to create others.

We use Pidgin at multiple computers simultaneously, so I wanted to be able to duplicate these replacements at each station without having to do it manually.

Pidgin stores the plugin’s text replacement library here:
C:\Users\USERNAME\AppData\Roaming\.purple\dict

To move this file to another computer:

  • On the destination PC, repeat the first chunk of steps above to enable the Text Replacement plugin.
  • Copy the dict file from the source PC to the same location on the destination PC.
  • Restart pidgin on the destination PC.

Now we’re in business! The next step was to figure out exactly what we wanted to replace.

I asked one of our graduate students to scour two weeks of chat logs for commonly used phrases. I quickly learned that I had asked the wrong question though, as this is what she found most frequently used:

  • Hi
  • You’re welcome.
  • Hello
  • Let me take a look.
  • Do you mind holding on for a moment?
  • Let us know if you need more help.
  • Hi there!
  • No problem!
  • Let me check on that.
  • Thank you.
  • How can I help you?
  • Have a great day!
  • Where have you searched thus far?
  • Are you searching for a specific article?
  • What title are you looking for?
  • What is your question?

While some of these are good finds, the majority really can’t be shortened enough to save much time in typing. So instead of looking for most commonly used phrases, I went through and found large and semi-large chunks of text that we end up repeating. Instead of what we say most often, this is what would save us the most time in typing. As a bonus, it also ensures consistency in the way we answer these questions and decreases the likelihood of providing incorrect information. I did also include a couple of short entries from the initial list above, just because they’re so frequently used. It’s a short list for now, and is included at the end of this post.

Next steps:

The plugin has been in action for a few months now, while I and a few others beta tested it. We’ve had no problems, so I plan on doing basic training for others and placing documentation of the list at the desk. There’s an adjustment period, but I find that by now I’ve pretty much memorized the list. Using the shortcuts has become second nature. I will also likely expand the list a little bit, although not too much. The last thing I want to do is sound like the overly-robotic Time Warner Cable support tech who I chatted with last week. That transcript included him/her/it telling me “…we are striving to expand our capabilities in (insert market).”, forgetting to fill in the boilerplate at all.

Our active list of text replacement shortcuts:

Type: $article
Produces: What’s the article you’re looking for?

Type: $bye
Produces: You’re welcome, have a good day!

Type: $circ
Produces: I’m going to transfer you over to our circulation department, they can best help you with something like this. Hold on, they’ll be right with you.

Type: $hi
Produces: Hello! How can I help you today?

Type: $hold
Produces: Do you mind holding on for a minute? I’ll be right back.

Type: $ill
Produces: Your best bet is probably to submit an Interlibrary Loan request. We’ll try to borrow a copy from another library for you. It usually takes a few days, and you can start the process here: https://www.lib.unc.edu/carolinablu/

Type: $spam
Produces: If you have a research question I’d be happy to help you, but otherwise I need to end this chat now.

17. March 2014 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Libraries/Info Sci, Presentations, Tech, UNC | 7 comments

Comments (7)

  1. Cool! I had no idea Pidgin had that feature.

    If you aren’t using pidgin or want something even more portable (can run from a flash-drive), I recommend vTask’s free “Typertask” (http://www.vtaskstudio.com/support.php).

    This works great for me, since I use Pidgin for manning chat from my office, but the reference desk computer using the web client. I can plug in my flash drive and have consistent shortcuts on any machine.

  2. Nice! That’s a great way to work around the Pidgin requirement for my method.

  3. This is great, thanks for sharing, Chad. Everyone at Duke is excited about this. I wondered if there is something similar for Adium. We have some Mac users and they wanted to keep up.

  4. Thanks Michael! While I haven’t tried it yet, investigating this Adium plugin is on my to-do list: http://adiumxtras.com/index.php?a=xtras&xtra_id=6978 Let me know if you get it working! There’s also broader text-replacement software that will work in any program, not just Pidgin or Adium, but I go back and forth on whether that’s the best solution or not.

  5. I love this idea! Our students work on PCs, so I’ll play around with the Pidgin shortcuts.

    But my own computer is a Mac, and I use TextExpander for Lots Of Things — so I’ll program my own TextExpander with the same shortcuts we agree to use on the PC.

    Great idea, Chad – thanks for sharing it!

  6. The DeAbbrevifier plugin that you suggested seems to be no longer supported and isn’t working for us. I’m going to try the general text substitution and see how that goes.

  7. Oops, I should have looked at that more closely before pointing it out. I didn’t notice that it was last updated in 2009. I hope the general option works better!

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