The Complete Guide to Chat APIs
With remote interactions and communications on the rise, it’s now crucial to give users an in-app way to chat. This lets them stay engaged with your experience by connecting with others directly rather than turning to third-party messaging apps for their communication needs. Thankfully, for modern developers, implementing chat across devices and platforms is simpler than ever. Chat APIs make it easy to create complex, multi-channel chat with responsive and reliable performance and full feature sets, all without the time and expense of building in-house.
In this article, we’ll explore:
What a chat API is.
The best practices for leveraging chat APIs for your unique use case.
How developers and users benefit from chat APIs.
Guidelines to evaluate and choose the right chat API provider for your needs.
After finishing this guide, you'll understand why a chat API is a necessary tool to create an engaging, fully-featured application, and you’ll be equipped to find one that suits your exact needs.
What is a chat API?
A chat API is an application programming interface that provides access to cloud-based infrastructure with the features to build real-time chat experiences that scale. Chat APIs are usually offered as a service, and they can be easily embedded in an application with the use of a chat SDK (Software Development Kit).
In contrast to a messaging API, which focuses on SMS and MMS messaging, a chat API focuses entirely on providing features built on web-based instant messaging, such as HTTPS and other protocols.
Often, chat APIs package messaging information in an easy-to-understand data format, like JSON payloads. This lets them work between platforms, and allows developers to easily format chat information for end-users.
Additionally, the best chat APIs are just one part of a larger real-time communication platform. This means that the service you initially use for chat will facilitate expansion to new features, like push notifications, video calling, and chatbots.
You can use a chat API in almost any context. Whether you’re building an app or a web-based experience, you can use a chat API to build engaging, responsive chat for many use cases.
Chat API use cases
A chat API opens the door to countless use cases that would otherwise take considerable engineering effort, time, and money to build out from scratch. At its heart, a chat API lets you easily bring live chat into your application, website, or game. In addition, a secure and HIPAA-compliant chat API, like PubNub’s, will let you build for sensitive situations where privacy is key.
Chat gives your users a key communication channel and is a foundation for other product features and workflows that enhance user engagement. You can use chat to connect users rapidly, introduce a unique social element to your app, improve your UX with personalized communication, and more. Some standout examples include:
More patients and providers have adopted telemedicine this year than ever before. For example, in a single week early in March, telemedicine app Doxy.me hosted treatment for 1.35 million patients using chat, voice, and video, with a peak of 600,000 daily remote medical consultations. For many, telemedicine has become a fact of life.
For telemedicine apps to deliver quality remote care, they must provide communication channels that help patients feel comfortable and confident talking with their virtual care team.
For teams developing telemedicine, a HIPAA-compliant chat API is the basis of this seamless communication experience. It provides consistent, reliable, and secure communication and lets you deliver a refined user experience—without introducing regulatory or privacy risk to your application. This lets patients confidently engage in their care in ways that feel like the consumer applications they use every day.
This comfort makes it more likely that patients will participate in care, better adhere to treatment, and have more positive outcomes overall. For providers, this efficacy of care means that doctors’ time is utilized efficiently, bringing down both up-front and long-term costs associated with ineffective care.
Overall, chat for telemedicine creates a powerful foundation for open communication between patients and providers, paving the way for effective remote care.
Multiplayer games rely on player engagement and retention. And social features, like chat, are a key element to retaining players. Players who are socially active and community-oriented are more likely to remain active in your game, bring in their friends and family, and commit to in-game purchases.
Beyond engaging players individually, chat forms the basis of your entire player community. Without it, players will turn to external messaging apps to keep in touch, splitting your playerbase and causing you to lose out on valuable player data.
A chat API makes it easy to integrate chat into gameplay, and lets you focus instead on developing your game’s core differentiators. Plus, once you implement chat, you can expand it with exciting features like clans, tournaments, and festivals, which give players additional ways to get involved.
Virtual live events
As events move online and turn to live-streaming to reach their audiences, it’s more important than ever to turn virtual live events into experiences that mirror the energy and engagement of in-person events.
Chat that lives right alongside an event stream lets fans engage with family, friends, and other audience members in the full context of each moment. These spontaneous, real-time interactions, like chat, let audiences feel truly engaged in your event. When audiences are engaged, it’s more likely they’ll participate in your platform, interact with hosts, and return for future live streams and events.
With live events, your entire audience takes part in the same moments at the same time. Beyond providing the tools to implement chat itself, a chat API like PubNub will help you accommodate massive concurrent audiences and will withstand the traffic spikes that naturally arise when you broadcast events.
Customer support chat
Live support chat can take many forms, from connecting with an agent via a web app to on-demand use cases like delivery or ride-sharing.
No matter what form it takes, support chat is extremely beneficial. It helps customers resolve complex issues much faster than support docs, phone lines, or ticketing systems.
Hearing directly from customers via chat gives you visibility into gaps in your service. And each chat conversation is an opportunity to engage customers, give them a positive experience, and build loyalty.
A flexible chat API will let you deploy support chat regardless of your platform, whether that means web, native desktop, or mobile. A chat API that provides endpoints for third-party integrations will also let you easily build customer support chatbots that automate workflows and meet your precise needs.
Depending on its purpose and audience, chat may look and feel very different. But, at its heart, it lets two (or more) users connect and communicate instantly. Across the board, in-app chat needs to connect users seamlessly, and give them a great chat experience. No matter your industry, any in-app messaging opportunity is a use case for a chat API.
Choosing the right chat API
The first step to getting the benefits of a chat API is to choose a service that suits your needs. Developers have more choice than ever when it comes to selecting a chat API. But, picking a chat API with unforeseen limits can mean roadblocks down the line, like the inability to support a growing user base, add new features, or easily deploy on new platforms.
The easiest way to make the right choice is to list your needs and see if a chat API provider meets them. The three main categories in this respect are core needs, rich features, and considerations for expanding via integrations and chatbots.
Core messaging needs
Your chat service should, first and foremost, fulfill the core needs of your application. At the very foundation, this means providing the stable, scalable, real-time backend required for great chat. Then, the API itself should make it easy to deliver 1:1 and group chat for your use case. But it should also let you see who’s active or inactive, send push notifications, and easily display message history. In all, core messaging features include:
Group chat, for social or collaborative use-cases
Presence, to see who’s active and inactive
Push notifications, to reach users, even when offline
Chat history, to retain the context of conversations
Reliability at scale
Concurrency for many, many users
A service like PubNub chat offers all of this together, with simple methods that form the essential core of a modern chat implementation.
Rich, real-time chat features
Features like typing indicators, emoji reactions, read receipts, and more have become standard in high-end chat apps, and for good reason. They offer tangible, immediate feedback that helps chat experiences feel responsive and organic.
Users tend to compare your in-app chat to the polished consumer chat experiences they use every day. Rich chat features are a simple way to meet, or exceed, user expectations and keep them engaged with your app.
Chat APIs like PubNub can make it easy for your team to deliver rich chat features like:
Emoji reactions and other user interactions
Typing indicators for immediate feedback
File upload for images, GIFs, or flexible sharing
Profanity filtering and moderation
By leveraging an API that provides these features, you cut out development time and ensure that you satisfy user expectations.
A chat platform for integrations and chatbots
Finally, a chat API should never be a black box that does just chat. Instead, to support you as your application evolves, a chat API should give you access to a complete chat platform. This means giving you advanced capabilities that let you expand your use-case and feature set through both platform features and 3rd party integrations.
First, look for these built-in features when considering a chat platform:
Serverless functions, to trigger code or invoke APIs in-flight.
Webhooks, to integrate real-time events with your server or REST APIs.
Flexible API design that gives you full control.
Then, to power the evolution of your app, make sure the platform you’re evaluating integrates with:
Voice and video services, for rich communication experiences.
Conversational interfaces, for easily building chatbots.
Altogether, these features ensure that you’ll always have the ability to expand with powerful new features as your needs develop, with the assurance that you’ll always have access to the best tools and technology available. And, you’ll never need to worry about getting your chat to work in harmony with other parts of your app.
Evaluating a Chat SDK
Beyond the features it offers, it’s essential that a chat API is available for your platform of choice, and that it works in the language you want to use. Even if a provider offers fantastic service, it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t deploy it to your app— or if it presents limits to the kinds of devices and platforms you can support in the future.
A great chat SDK will support all of the features available in the API. And, like a great chat API itself, it will lend itself to expanding beyond just chat.
Ideally, the availability of SDKs means you can build real-time chat for any platform. This means that your choice should remove obstacles to future innovation, letting you focus on your product goals rather than troubleshooting workarounds.
If you’re developing a mobile application, you shouldn’t have to worry about supporting both Android and iOS. Both platforms offer multiple languages to work in, and hybrid development has also matured. To leverage their full range of options, mobile developers should look for SDKs for:
C# Unity for mobile games.
In the ideal case, a chat API simply never makes you choose. PubNub offers the SDK for your platform, whether you’re developing for web, mobile, desktop, or IoT. This means that PubNub will work anywhere, using the most modern technologies available.
Get started with PubNub Chat
Across industries, the value of chat has become increasingly evident. In-app chat gives your users a direct, conversational interface to communicate with others, seek help, and solve problems. For work, play, or personal care, in-app chat gives you new ways to engage users and improve their experience.
A chat API, like PubNub, offers a set of tools, built upon reliable messaging infrastructure, to make it easy to deliver and maintain rich chat that meets user expectations and integrates seamlessly into your product or service. Whether you’re developing for web, mobile, desktop, or a platform that doesn’t yet exist, PubNub’s chat API will supercharge your dev team so you can bring your unique vision to life.
Ready to build fully-featured in-app chat? Get in touch with an expert on our team. We’ll get you up and running with our APIs, so you can build chat that your users will love.