What is a heatmap? A complete guide on how to use them

A heatmap is a visual representation of what users are doing on your web pages, such as where they click or tap, how far they scroll and which elements they look at or ignore.

What are heatmaps?

Heatmaps are one of the most well-known web analytics visualization tools. They’ve been in use for 20+ years. It has become such an industry standard that many RFPs for web analytics and digital experience solutions will explicitly require it.

The definition of a heatmap is a graphical representation that shows spots of activity or engagement on a website. Heatmaps show what users are doing on each individual web page: where they click and how far they scroll, as well as what they look at or ignore.

Heatmap tools offer immediate visual appeal and a lot of useful information. Unlike traditional web analytics tools, they provide richer insight and are a great way to get a visual understanding of how and why to optimize your website.

Heatmap software is beneficial because it provides insight into how users behave on specific web pages and where there might be technical issues you weren’t aware of. As a result, these technical issues can be prioritized or web pages can be redesigned with user engagement and activity data in mind to provide a seamless digital customer experience.

Creating a heatmap helps determine where the most important content on a web page should be. They also help product, UX and marketing teams answer questions such as:

  • What page content do users typically see?
  • What are users interested in the most on a specific page?
  • Which actions are users taking the most?

How do heatmaps work? How to analyze a heatmap

Heatmaps aggregate very large amounts of data and transform them into simple, immediate visual representations. Heatmap tools use a warm-to-cool color spectrum to visually represent which parts of your web pages receive the most activity and engagement.

Typically heatmap analysis is portrayed in red, fading through orange and yellow to ‘cooler’ areas in green, then blue. Some are portrayed in grayscale, and some will move through red to ‘white-hot’ areas.

They immediately draw the eye to the hotter areas (or cooler areas depending on the purpose). The whole point of heatmaps is being told where to look.

This heatmap, for example, visually portrays the scroll depth on a web page. The data shows that users aren’t scrolling too far down the page, so the CTA should be moved above the fold to align where users are showing the most activity or engagement.

Types of heatmaps

There are many different types of website heatmaps, and each one offers different insights. Heatmaps can be combined to see the full picture of what’s happening on a particular web page. The most common types of heatmaps are:

  • Scroll maps
  • Click maps
  • Move maps
  • Desktop vs. mobile heatmaps

Scroll maps

A scroll map is a visual representation of a user's scrolling behavior on a specific web page. More specifically, this type of heatmap shows you exactly how far down the page your users are willing to go and where they spend the most time.

A scroll map can help you determine the length of your web page and how much content you should show users before they have to start scrolling. Web pages can be long - that’s normal.

A big conundrum in web design is always around how much content should be shown before users have to scroll. Scroll maps can help you identify where to put the most important content based on user activity and engagement.

Click maps

Click maps show you where users click most often, or on a mobile device, where they tap. More specifically, click maps, referred to as touch heatmaps on a mobile device, show you data on which images, buttons, text or general page elements are being clicked on, as well as what’s being ignored.

This type of heatmap not only identifies the most popular links on your web page, but also unclickable areas that users are trying to click on. Click map data can help you remove areas of friction on your website by either adding a link to areas users think should be clickable but isn’t, or redesign the area to make it clear that it’s not clickable.

This data is extremely helpful when testing your menus, promotional banners and CTAs. With proper placement, you can drastically increase your ROI.

Move maps

Move maps show you users’ mouse movements on a web page. This kind of heatmap can provide greater insight into how a user interacts with your web page and offer helpful information about the ideal placement of content and CTAs within the overall design.

With move maps, you can see what users look at, what grabs their attention and where something causes them to struggle. Friction points can be easily identified and resolved in a timely manner, making for a seamless digital customer experience.

Desktop vs. mobile heatmaps

Desktop and mobile heatmaps give you the ability to compare the performance and analyze both a user’s desktop journey and mobile journey. While desktop heatmaps show you how users are interacting with your website and the different web pages, mobile heatmaps show you how users are interacting with your app.

Mobile heatmaps can show you how users are logging into your app. For example, if they’re logging in with their Facebook or Google accounts versus their email address. If users are mostly logging in using their Facebook account, the data will show you this. You can then improve the user experience by making the Facebook login button more prominent over the Google account or email options.

Like desktop heatmaps, mobile heatmaps can also help you identify where users are struggling and where they are abandoning it. This data can help you fix the issues with your mobile app and create a positive user experience, encouraging them to come back.

Benefits of using a heatmap

Heatmaps provide many benefits, which we explore in more detail below.

Helps you answer important questions

A heatmap tool can help you answer some of the most important questions about your website, such as:

  • Are users struggling to find your CTAs?
  • How effective are your CTAs?
  • Is there content on your web pages that users are skipping over or just not seeing?
  • What are the most popular areas of a web page?
  • What page elements are distracting users and negatively impacting conversions?
  • Are there glitches or places users are mistakenly clicking?
  • Where are there opportunities?

Allows you to make data-driven decisions

Instead of guessing why your users aren’t converting, heatmaps give you the ability to make data-informed decisions. With the data from heatmaps, you’re able to form a deeper understanding of user behavior and make adjustments to your website.

For example, if users are continuously skipping past your CTA, a heatmap will show you this. It could mean they’re struggling to find your CTA or imply that your CTA isn’t effective. Either way, you won’t be left guessing and can make necessary changes to improve conversion rates.

In essence, heatmaps allow you to better understand customer behavior, analyze what’s working and what’s not working on your website, and then make the necessary changes to improve the user experience.

Provides insight into UX design

Once you get answers to the questions above, you’ll have the data you need to start optimizing your UX design and web pages. Below are examples of things you can test out:

  • Get each page working effectively across all devices and operating systems
  • Correct any bugs in your code
  • Ensure all page elements are present and load promptly
  • Change the order and location of key messages and CTAs
  • Optimize the size and positioning of images and text
  • Tighten or shorten your copy
  • Replace large amounts of text with a short explanatory video
  • Apply different color and contrast combinations to attract or deflect attention as required
  • Offer live chat or pop-up help and better locate error messages so you don’t lose users to frustration
  • Remove all distractions from vital web pages at the end of the funnel, such as checkout
  • Provide clearer instructions or add FAQ/help pages or pop-ups
  • Enlarge or redesign important buttons and repeat them in key locations
  • Adopt a format for form fields that users feel comfortable with
  • Interpret user behavior and adjust the web page accordingly

To get a head start on optimizing your UX design, check out this eBook on 10 Common UX Mistakes and How to Fix Them.

Enables teams to use the data to push for change from other stakeholders

As mentioned above, heatmaps allow you to make data-informed decisions. The data takes the guesswork out of what should be changed on a website and helps teams prioritize the changes that need to be implemented to provide a seamless digital customer experience. Heatmaps provide strong visuals to help you prove your point and get buy-in for your business case. It’s difficult for stakeholders to argue with the data presented by heatmaps.

Improves the customer experience

Building a website isn’t a set it and forget it exercise, especially if it’s the main driver of your company’s revenue. Individual user behavior is constantly changing, so what may have worked in the past may not be effective today. The only way you can truly provide a great digital customer experience is to understand your audience and how they interact with your content so that you can optimize your website in the best way possible. A heatmap tool can help you understand the changes that need to be made and prioritize them.

Boosts conversion rate optimization (CRO) and improves conversion rates

CRO is the science of continually making your website work harder for you. Your website has to keep improving on an ongoing basis. After all, your competitors are busy fine-tuning their own digital customer experiences and new competitors are always emerging.

No matter how great your website is, there could be all kinds of things adversely affecting users’ interactions with it. Many of these things are within your control, so it’s critically important to identify and fix them. These adverse factors may be stopping users from reaching the conversion goals you set for them, such as completing a sale or asking for a callback.

If these problems aren’t addressed, you’re most likely missing out on revenue or other gains, while also wasting the money you spent on advertising and promotion to get users interested in the first place. If you’re losing customers who came to your website ready to buy but then were prevented from doing so, that’s a huge issue. Not only are you losing sales, but you are losing market share and aspects of your reputation as well.

Heatmap tools play a crucial role in finding and repairing these problems so that you can reach your conversion goals and improve overall conversion rates.

If CRO is front of mind, download our free eBook detailing 9 Conversion Rate Optimization Secrets from Digital Leaders.

Identifies usability issues, such as rage clicking

When visitors encounter usability issues on your website, such as bugs or broken elements, or even an element that appears it should be hyperlinked but isn’t, they begin to rage click. Rage clicking is a great way to identify when something is broken or needs to be changed to provide a better digital user experience. For example, you may want to make it more obvious that an element on a web page isn’t clickable to avoid frustration.

If you notice one or more of your web pages has a particularly high bounce rate, you can create a heatmap to find out why. Heatmaps can help you identify usability issues so that you can fix them and prevent further frustration.

Who can use a heatmap?

  • Digital marketers
  • Digital analysts
  • UX designers
  • Developers
  • Customer support teams
  • Product teams
  • Sales teams

How to create a heatmap - tools and software

There are many heatmap tools and software available, including:

  • Adobe Analytics
  • Crazy Egg
  • Inspectlet
  • Lucky Orange
  • Mouseflow
  • Smartlook
  • Zoho PageSense

Before you decide on a heatmap tool, read below to see how an interaction map can provide even more insight for your analytics goals.

Limitations of Heatmaps

While heatmap tools are widely used to understand user behavior on websites and mobile apps, they are not the end-all, be-all. We discuss three known limitations they suffer from below.

1. Precision

Heatmaps typically show colors instead of numbers. Sometimes you need a more granular breakdown or absolute numbers. The same grows for scroll depth.

2. Accuracy

Heatmaps rely on x and y pixel coordinates. This means if the size of a web page changes and the buttons move, the colors won’t be accurately mapped to where users really clicked. This is why many heatmaps show lines of color where users are clicking as the page stretches in width.

3. Flexibility

Modern websites are dynamic with different content displayed based on user behavior, such as accordions and tool tips. Heatmaps rely on manually configured page states to account for these changes, but a complex page can have thousands of possible layouts making it difficult to accommodate using a few page states.

In practice, this means heatmaps are best for making high-level presentations about basic web pages. Think design agencies embedding screenshots into an executive presentation for a site that sells auto insurance.

What if you want to track trends in engagement or the impact of design changes on a specific element? Or do you have an interactive responsive website radically altering the layout of elements on different devices based on user actions? Then you might want to consider an interaction map.

Interaction maps

Interaction maps display numbers and percentages in addition to color mapping engagement for more granular data. They rely on interactions with specific elements rather than mapping pixel coordinates for greater accuracy and flexibility. This overcomes the limitations of heatmaps, but at the cost of having to work a bit harder to understand the visualization.

More advanced interaction maps will also include metrics, such as:

  • First clicks
  • Struggles
  • Changes to form fields

This enables you to answer meaningful questions, such as:

  • Where do users struggle?
  • Which fields are clicked on but not filled out?
  • In what order do users navigate the page?

They will also support single-page applications and native mobile apps, saving you the headache of deploying multiple tools. The ultimate interaction maps will also integrate with a journey map view and session replay. This is what a full suite digital experience solution will offer.

FAQs

Check out the heatmap FAQs if you’re short on time or are looking for a quick cheat sheet on heatmaps.

What are heatmaps?

Heatmaps are one of the most well-known web analytics visualization tools. They make it easy to quickly see where users are clicking and how far they scroll and overall how users interact with web pages or mobile app.

Who uses heatmaps?

Digital marketers, digital analysts, UX designers, developers, customer support teams, product teams and sales teams.

What are the different types of heatmaps?

Scroll maps are a visual representation of how far users scroll down your web page or mobile app. This type of heatmap can tell you where the most viewed parts of your web page or mobile app are, as well as the least viewed.

Click maps show you the elements on your web page or mobile app that are most interacted with, as well as what’s being ignored. This type of heatmap also identifies the most popular links on your web page, as well as unclickable areas that users are rage clicking. The data from this heatmap helps remove areas of user struggle.

Move maps show users’ mouse movements on a web page. This type of heatmap provides insight into how a user interacts with your web page. You can see what grabs their attention and where something causes a user to struggle. With this data, friction points can be identified and resolved in a timely manner.

What are the benefits of using heatmaps?

Heatmaps can help you answer critical questions about your website or mobile app, such as:

  • Are users struggling to find your CTAs?
  • How effective are your CTAs?
  • Is there content on your web pages that users are skipping over or just not seeing?
  • What are the most popular areas of a web page?
  • What page elements are distracting users and negatively impacting conversions?
  • Are there glitches or places users are mistakenly clicking?
  • Where are there opportunities?