What Is Session Replay? The Complete Guide

When you want to understand your users, looking at behavior metrics and KPIs is a good start. But to learn why they behave as they do, you need to see your digital product through users’ eyes. Session replay, also referred to as session recordings, lets you do exactly that—and a whole lot more.

A Comprehensive Guide to Session Replay

Key takeaways

Understanding user actions can be an uphill struggle, even at the best of times. But fortunately, they leave clues about their thoughts and experiences behind when they use your website.

By following the trail with your analytics tools, you can answer important questions about where users get stuck and what they need.

However, most analytical data will tell you what users are doing, but it won’t tell you why. To uncover the reasons behind the trends, you need to understand what your users see and do—and that’s where website session replay tools help.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how you can use session replay to:

  • Understand what users see and do on individual pages

  • Resolve bugs, issues and design flaws faster

  • Provide game-changing user insights to your marketing, product, UX/design and customer support teams

  • Improve user experiences and maximize conversions

Let's dive in!

What is session replay?

Session replay is a tool that shows you video-like reconstructions of an individual user’s journey through your website or app.

That means you see what clicks, keyboard entries, scrolls and mouse movements they made—or for mobile users, every tap, scroll and pinch.

Session replay tools also reconstruct your website just as users saw it. This means that session replay is super helpful for identifying bugs, errors and user experience (UX) design flaws.

Advanced session replay tools also have advanced features that:

  • Detect signs of struggle automatically (then help you skip to that part of the replay)

  • Filter sessions by audience segments, behaviors and struggle indicators

  • Maintain user privacy by masking personal information (like credit card details)

What is session replay not?

You could be forgiven for thinking that session replay is a video or a screen recording. It’s an understandable misconception—when you watch a replay, you’ll see a mouse (or mobile screen) moving around, just like in a screen recording.

However, what you’re seeing is a video-style reconstruction of the user’s journey. This reconstruction is based on data that the session replay tool collects about your user’s actions, and about your website or app.

For this reason, session replay doesn’t capture:

  • Streaming video content

  • Streaming content (like live chats)

  • Notifications or “pop-ups” from other apps

  • Anything else that occurs outside the app or browser window where a session replay tool is active

Session replay tools simply capture your navigation actions—like clicks, taps and scrolls—and the visual design of your app. It’s the same data used to create heatmaps or interaction maps showing where your users click and scroll.

Understanding how session replay technology works

Session replay technology works by using something called the Document Object Model, or DOM. The DOM is essentially a big page of code that’s stored in your web browser or app.

Without getting too technical, the DOM acts as a super detailed log of what’s happening in your website. It logs two types of information:

  • Events are visitor interactions that occur on the page, like users tapping, scrolling, clicking or retrieving information.

  • Assets are the design elements that make up the site (and all the code behind them). This can include images, HTML and CSS. By logging this information, the DOM keeps a “snapshot” or what your website looked like. The session replay tool can then accurately reconstruct your site, even if it has changed since the user’s journey.

Watching a session recording could be compared to watching a play at the theatre. The assets logged in the DOM are the background elements you see, like curtains, lights, scenery and props. The events are the actors’ lines and movements that tell the “story” of the scene—in other words, what your user did.

The difference is that in a play, the actors deliver their performance differently each time. But with session replay, you always get a 100% perfect reproduction of the user events.

What are the benefits of using session replay?

Session replay helps you reduce friction, increase conversions and optimize the user’s digital experience. It also allows you to respond to customer support requests more quickly by reproducing what users saw.

Most importantly, session playback makes your digital analytics insights more actionable by giving you a complete view of user behavior.

Let’s explore each of these benefits further to see how session replay can help your business.

Optimize conversion rates

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) often feels like trying to solve a mystery. When you’re not sure what’s holding users back, it’s tempting to simply change the page on a whim and run A/B tests to see what happens.

But with session recordings you can see customer interactions, such as:

  • Where users get lost or distracted

  • How the page design appears on their browser

  • Which site elements grab their attention

  • What they do before leaving

Observing these behaviors helps you understand what’s blocking users from completing the “micro-conversions” that lead to bigger conversions—like sales or trial sign-ups.

Ultimately, this helps you eliminate guesswork and create data-driven hypotheses for what might improve conversions. And when you start running A/B tests, session replay let you examine how users interact with each variant.

Reduce customer friction and struggles

When it comes to websites and mobile apps, friction is anything that impedes users from completing a desired action. This could mean anything from a slow-loading website to a complex form that confuses users.

Some analytics tools might help you find the pages where users encounter friction. But until you observe user journeys, you won’t discover certain issues. For example:

  • Users start filling in your form, but close the page halfway through (suggesting they are bored or confused)

  • Users navigate towards a key call-to-action, but it’s obscured by a page element that doesn’t display correctly

Session replay is the only tool that lets you see your website through the user’s eyes and identify these issues. 

Find friction faster

With advanced session replay tools, you can skip straight to the parts of the replay where users are struggling. Glassbox automatically flags sessions that include indicators of struggle, such as rage clicks (where users click multiple times in quick succession). 

Identify areas for improvement

Understanding your users’ journeys through a session recording tool can help you empathize with them and find new ways to serve them better.

For example:

  • Making content more digestible. Watching session replays, you notice that users scroll past large sections of text containing key sales points. Intepreting this as a sign that users find the text overwhelming, you break it up into smaller paragraphs.

  • Simplifying navigation. Viewing session replays, you notice that new visitors to your site often click your search tool and look for two popular product categories. You then add these categories to the menu bar so users can navigate to them more easily.

Small user inputs changes like this can make a big impact on your results over time. For example, finance company SoFi used Glassbox to identify a form issue—and the resulting fix saved an estimated $9 million in revenue.

Reduce response time when customers need support

When users encounter issues on your website or app, it can be frustrating. So when they contact customer support, your team wants to resolve the problem quickly.

Session replay can help your customer support team get additional context on the problem. By replaying the user’s journey, you can find out what went wrong and take immediate steps to help them.

And when the customer’s issue was down to a website bug, session replay helps your team resolve it faster. Your customer support team simply forwards the appropriate session replay link to your development team, thus accelerating their debugging process. 

Provides a full view of user behavior

Traditional analytics tools are usually the first place you look when trying to understand your users. For example, metrics like Exit Rate and Average Time on Page can help you identify where users are dropping off.

Next, with digital analytics tools like heatmaps and struggle analysis, you can spot indicators of friction, bugs, or design flaws—and get one step closer to the issue.

But until you know what users are actually doing on a page, you’re still in the dark. 

In this sense, a session recording tool represents the final step of discovering what your users need. They give clarity to your other analytics insights, zeroing in on user needs so you can take the right action.

How do different teams use session replay?

Session replay software is helpful for any team that needs a deeper understanding of their users. They allow departments like marketing, product, UX/design and customer support to learn how users behave—and where they most need help.

Session replay for marketing teams

For marketing teams, understanding the perspectives of prospects is vital. Session replay lets marketers examine journeys to pick up vital clues about users’ motivations, doubts and preferences.

  • Improve marketing campaigns. How do users from different campaigns and channels explore your content? Session replay reveals what grabs their attention, so you can find out what content resonates with them.
  • Optimize conversions. Session replay helps you understand the nuances in a visitors’ behavior as they browse conversion-focused marketing assets—like pricing pages or product pages.

  • Learn more from A/B tests. Session replay lets you look further into how users behave during tests, so you can understand why one variant beats another.

Session replay for product teams

Product teams need to make sure the app is functioning well and has the features that users need. Accordingly, developers have a never-ending to-do list and must prioritize their work around the most pressing user needs.

Session replay helps product teams make decisions in three ways:

  • Evaluate new features. Session replay lets product teams see how users are exploring and adopting new features—and identify the issues that will inevitably occur in them.

  • Fix bugs faster. When errors occur, product teams can take a look at relevant sessions to identify the problem. This shortcuts the debugging process they would otherwise go through when responding to bug reports from users.

  • Get buy-in from team members. With session replay, product teams can give their colleagues a visual demonstration of what users are experiencing. This makes it much easier to get consensus when planning product improvements.

Session replay for design and UX research teams

Design and UX research teams want to ensure sure the website or app’s interface and structure is easy to navigate. But this means understanding how users experience their designs—something that’s impossible without observing them in action.

Session replay allows design and UX teams to validate their designs in several ways:

  • Avoid bias in usability testing. Usability testing is vital for UX teams who want to evaluate their designs with real users, but moderated testing has the potential for bias. With session replay, UX teams can understand how users behave “in the wild” with no influence from moderators.

  • Discover how intuitive the app or website is. How easily can users navigate your website? Does your website structure make sense to new users? Watching session replays reveals all this and more, helping UX research and design teams to find areas for improvement.

  • See how the design displays on different devices. Customers will access apps on a wide range of devices and browsers, and design glitches can occur on all of them. Advanced session replay tools let you filter your data by device so you can evaluate the responsiveness of your design.

Session replay for customer support teams

When users contact customer support about an issue, the team often needs to gather more information about what happened. Instead of asking users to attach a screenshot, the team can use session replay to investigate more efficiently:

  • Find and replay the customer’s journey. Session replay tools let customer success teams search by a user ID to find a specific customer’s journey. They can then replay the customer’s session to get more context on their issue.

  • Browse with the user in (almost) real time. Session replay allows you to watch a user’s journey live. With this capability, customer success teams walk through the issue with users immediately, potentially delivering a more rapid response.

Learn more from your data by integrating session replay with digital analytics

Session replay is most helpful when used in combination with other tools, like web analytics, performance analytics and heatmap tools. By reviewing quantitative data from other tools, you can identify places where users might need help—then use session replay to investigate further.

There are multiple ways to use different data sources together to get helpful insights. For example:

  • Use funnel analytics tools to identify where users are dropping off, then watch session replays to learn what’s happening on the page.

  • Use voice of customer (VoC) tools to gather feedback from users browsing your site or app. Then watch relevant session replays to learn what users did before and after leaving feedback.

  • Leverage performance analytics tools to identify where crashes and error messages tend to occur. Then watch session replays to learn how they affect the customer experience.

Session replay is especially powerful when combined with a digital experience intelligence platform, as it gives you a complete picture of what is happening and why.

Get a complete analytics solution

Glassbox offers a complete suite of analytical tools for apps and websites, with no manual tagging required. Plus, it integrates with external CRMs, analytics tools and marketing platforms to help you learn more from your data.

> Discover Glassbox

Six ways session replay helps you understand your customers

Session replay answers the questions that other analytical tools don’t, giving you clarity on the why behind important trends. Here are six ways you can use session replay to better understand your customers: 

1. Understand user behavior

Looking at metrics and KPIs from other analytical tools can be helpful, but it reduces users to numbers. When you want to understand the humans behind the numbers, you need to get a close-up understanding of how they behave on your website or app.

Session replay is the only tool that reveals the nuances in their behavior—like how they use features, how they move through your website or app and where they hesitate or struggle.

2. Get an overview of the customer journey

To improve your customers’ experiences, you need to understand how they’re thinking and behaving at each interaction with your brand. A session replay feature helps you get these qualitative insights in several ways:

  • Watch how users from different segments explore your website or app from start to finish.

  • Observe how they interact with key features, like an app tool or your search bar.

  • Skip forward to see what users did just before leaving.

Session replay will show you what grabbed their attention, what their points are and more, so you can effectively map the customer journey.

3. Discover issues and challenges

Because session replay reproduces everything the user saw on-screen, it helps you identify important issues, like:

  • Graphics not displaying properly

  • Users clicking broken links or non-clickable elements

  • Users giving up when filling in forms

  • Pages where users skip past important elements (like your main call-to-action button)

…and much more! Using these insights, you can uncover the “hidden” challenges that keep users from going further down your funnel.

Fix errors faster with Glassbox

See how Glassbox's session replay feature helps you zero in on issues holding users back—and find the most relevant session replays.

Watch the demo

4. Support customers faster

Customer support teams can use session replay tools to resolve issues quickly. When a customer reports a problem, search for the user’s ID to find their last session and get more context on the problem. 

If the session reveals a bug, you can forward the session replay link to your development team.

In addition, advanced session replay tools will let you observe how the user browsed your website or mobile app live (with their consent). With this capability, you can ask the user to walk you through their proble and offer them instant guidance where possible.

5. Improve customer onboarding

When you want to evaluate your onboarding experience, replay the sessions of users who went through it for the first time. 

Session replays will show you:

  • What guidance users skip through quickly

  • Where users seem to get lost or confused

  • Which parts of your app or website they gravitate towards

Finally, you can compare sessions from users who completed onboarding with those that didn’t—then figure out what made the difference.

6. Assess feature adoption

Launching or updating a feature can be a nail-biter for product teams: do customers find it useful? Is the updated feature more or less usable than the previous version?

With session replay, you can observe how users interact with features, how often they use them and where they struggle. Combined with qualitative data on feature engagement, session replay is a powerful tool for validating your development decisions and learning if they need further changes.

Is session replay for mobile applications a thing?

Session replay for your mobile application works just like it does on desktop devices—but instead of clicks and mouse movements, it captures taps, scrolls and pinches. It also captures what devices visitors were browsing on. This means you can easily watch sessions from specific devices and learn how to improve the mobile experience.

Advanced mobile session replay tools like Glassbox offer rich insights specific to a mobile experience. With Glassbox you can visualize app journeys and use the data to analyze and optimize the in-app experience to improve the overall customer experience.

Glassbox goes beyond letting you filter session replays according to the device customers are browsing on and offers rich insights specific to a mobile experience.

Graphical user interface, text, application, chat or text message  Description automatically generated

Glassbox lets you filter your session replays according to the device users were browsing on.

What information does session replay log?

Session replay software logs virtually all data relating to the design of a website or an app. Because web designs have so many moving parts, session replay tools have to capture every visual element and programming language.

For example, Glassbox captures:

  • HTML and CSS

  • CSS animations

  • Mouse clicks and scrolls

  • Window resizes

  • Hover cursors and effects

  • Multi-touch events (on mobile)

  • Vector graphics in SVG

  • Window resizing

  • Embedded <iframe>

  • Script-modified input values

  • AJAX URL navigation

  • HTML5 audio and video playback

  • Web Components

…and much more. The tool then recreates each element precisely when you replay a session.

Session replay and privacy: what you need to know

Session replays tools are compliant with modern security and privacy requirements, as long as they don’t capture sensitive information. And most tools—including Glassbox—omit or mask sensitive information that could potentially be captured.

Graphical user interface, application  Description automatically generated

However, you will want to disclose in your privacy policy that you’re using tools like this.

Let go of security worries

Glassbox also delivers extra privacy and security features you won’t find with other tools. We are the only digital analytics company to be ISO 2270 certified.

> Discover Glassbox

Tips for choosing the right session replay tool

There are many session replay vendors out there, so we compiled a list to guide you in your search for the session replay tool that best fits your goals and needs.

1. Choose a tool that captures all the data you need

Many session replay tools will only capture sessions from a sample of your website or app traffic. This is OK for some businesses—but it could leave you lacking insights for key audience segments or for customers who report issues.

Glassbox is one of the only tools to capture 100% of website or app data automatically, so you don’t miss out on key learning opportunities.

2. Investigate how the tool can save you time

Session replay is a powerful tool for understanding your customers. However, sifting through hundreds of replays can take days—and the behavior nuances they capture can be easy to miss.

Most session replay tools will offer features like adjustable playback speed to help you browse sessions faster. But ideally, you want advanced features that flag sessions containing signs of user struggle, such as rage clicks (where users click repeatedly in rapid succession).

Glassbox’s AI-powered tools detect 12 different struggle indicators, helping you zero in on sessions that contain useful insights.

Graphical user interface, application  Description automatically generated

Glassbox’s 100% full data capture means there’s no need to manually tag events that you want to analyze. You save countless hours and avoid the headaches of time-consuming configurations.

3. Consider whether using multiple tools is practical

To understand your users, you need a range of qualitative and quantitative data, from traffic metrics to conversion KPIs, heatmaps and session replay.

Many businesses use multiple tools to capture the analytical data they need. However, this increases the complexity of your tech stack and slows down the analysis process.

Using a single tool makes it far easier to see the big picture. For example, Glassbox’s digital experience intelligence platform contains a full suite of analytical tools that sync together, so you can identify trends and jump to relevant sessions with a click.

Criteria for selecting the right session replay software

Here are the top eight criteria to consider when choosing a tool:

1. Playback features: Does the tool let you adjust the replay speed or skip periods of inactivity?

2. Saving and sharing features: Can you flag the most important sessions and share them with colleagues easily?

3. Filtering and search features: Can you filter thousands of sessions to find ones from a specific audience segment?

4. Integrations: Can the tool integrate with CRMs, A/B testing platforms, data warehouses, etc. in your tech stack?

5. Analytics capabilities: Can the tool gather and cross-reference different types of data to uncover hidden insights faster?

6. Privacy and security: Does the tool omit or mask sensitive data? Do its data storage systems comply with your industry regulations?

7. Price: Does the tool fit within your budget and offer enough value to justify the cost?

8. Support: Does the company have the expertise and resources to help you with any technical or setup challenges?

What session replay tools do you need to get started?

There are tons of session replay tools out there, but we recommend starting with one of these:

  • Glassbox is a digital experience intelligence platform that helps you understand what users are doing and why. Use the funnel analytics and struggle analysis tools to discover user trends, then watch session replay to learn more.

  • Crazy Egg is a popular website optimization tool. With features like heatmaps, A/B testing, surveys and session replay, it helps you learn how to improve your site for users.

  • Clarity is a session replay and heatmap tool from Microsoft. While its features are basic, it’s free to use, making it a good introductory analytics tool for smaller companies.

  • Smartlook is a product analytics and visual user insights platform. Designed to help you monitor and improve digital products, its features include session replay, heatmaps, crash reports and more.

Uncover actionable user insights with Glassbox

Every time a user visits your app, they leave clues about their motivations, obstacles and preferences. With Glassbox, you can go below the surface level and find out what the data’s telling you—and discover new ways to meet user needs.

> Discover Glassbox


Frequently Asked Questions about Session Replay

What is session replay?

Session replay is a video-like reconstruction of a user’s journey through your app or website. It shows you what the user saw and replays their scrolls, mouse movements and clicks (or taps and pinches) in real time.

What is the main purpose of session replay?

Session replay was designed to reveal what individual users experience when they browse an app or website. They show how the user explored and interacted with the website and how it appeared on their device. This allows teams to empathize with users and make data-driven improvements to their journeys.

How does session replay software work?

Session replay works by capturing every action a user makes during their session on an app or website. At the same time, it captures a snapshot of the design elements of the app or website itself. Finally, it combines both datasets to create a video reconstruction of their journey.

What are session replay tools?

Session replay tools are software platforms that connect to your app or website. When a user browses your website, the software captures what happens during their journey (or “session”). It then uses this data to create video-style reconstructions of the journey.

Can you use session replay for mobile?

You can use session replay for mobile journeys, just like you can for desktop journeys. However, mobile session replays show you the user’s taps, scrolls and pinches, instead of the mouse movements and clicks you see on desktop.