What is...

Heat map

A heat map is a graphic representation of data in which values are represented by colors. They allow you to track and record what visitors are doing on your website based on their mouse movements. In other words, heat maps track mouse movements, such as clicking on links and buttons, hovering, or scrolling. Based on the action they track and quantify, heat maps can be classified into click maps, scroll maps, and hover (or move) maps.

Click maps are, as their name suggests, an illustration of the sections of your website that users are most likely to click on. The colors, ranging from bright red to dark blue, show you the “hot spots” or the highlights of your website. The most clicked-on (or tapped-on, if you are analyzing mobile users’ on-site behavior) elements will be colored in red, while the least clicked-on- you guessed it- will be shown in blue.

Scroll maps show you how far people scroll down on your website. This can be an indicator of the level of their interest in the information you’re providing or a visual representation of their attention span. As you may know, we’re currently witnessing a downfall of the attention span. If our average attention span was about 12 seconds back in the 2000s, in 2015 it dropped to only 8.25 seconds. If you want your most important content to get to your visitors, you have to know how long they pay attention to it and how much they are willing to scroll down your website.

Hover or move maps are the closest we can get to the center of our users’ attention (and of the user behavior as well) and perhaps the most popular type of heat map. Move maps track where users move and pause their mouse as they’re navigating the page and, according to CRO specialists, there is a strong correlation between the “hot” spots where users pause their mouse and where they are actually looking. These maps show what raises your users’ interest and how they’re skimming through your content, what they’re taking the time to read, and what they’re skipping.

Coupled with your analytics tool, heat mapping tools will help you unlock powerful, actionable user insights that will transform your marketing efforts in a variety of ways. Let’s see how this works!

How does a heat map work?

Remember when you were playing “Hot and Cold” as a kid? It’s essentially the same thing, only with customer/prospect insights. Heatmaps aggregate large amounts of data, turning them into a friendlier form, easier to visualize. Because we’re visual creatures, after all. We’re better and faster at processing visual input and we’re mostly visual learners. 

Heat mapping is a kind of software that collects data associated with a certain web page and displays it over the web page itself. It’s almost as if our analytics could talk, pointing to the exact elements that attract users and keep them engaged. No more guessing, just cold, hard facts.

You start by adding a piece of tracking code to your website, you check some boxes to make sure you only follow unique users, so that your data set isn’t compromised, and you wait for the activity to intensify on your website. The software will then create a map of your website, with all the elements that a user would interact with. In the dashboard, you will be able to see an overview of the actions taken by users on your website. This process will reveal pain points and opportunities, while also highlighting the relevant areas for improvement.

Some heat mapping services allow you to combine the maps with traditional analytics or A/B testing and session recording programs, for more in-depth results. This can help you combine qualitative and quantitative data in one single picture, showing exactly what works and what doesn’t.

Examples of heatmaps

Heatmaps are by no means a new thing, as we’d be tempted to think. According to Leland Wilkinson (the creator of SYSTAT- the first computer program to produce cluster heatmaps with high-resolution color graphics), the origin of the modern heatmaps are the color-shaded matrix displays that have been used for centuries by statisticians and accountants, for example.

One of the earliest models is a shaded matrix display that sums up different social statistics from the Parisian arrondissements, which is to be found in the edition from 1873 of the Atlas statistique de la population de Paris, compiled by Toussaint Loua:

Heatmaps are used across a great many sectors, helping professionals visualize trends, evolutions, changes, and constant elements. And they have become pretty commonplace, too. You have probably seen them in the news, for example when talking about the COVID-19 outbreak:

Or about criminality:

Or perhaps you’ve read some alarming articles about the air quality in your area:

Heatmaps are also used to showcase population density:

Other heat map examples are the ones showing you how people vote:

There are also market heatmaps:

And even public transport and driving heatmaps:

Social media marketers use charts that are based on the same principles as the heatmaps to determine when it’s the right time to post across social networks:

But the heatmaps that interest us most look like this:

The benefits of using heatmaps on your website

Heatmaps can help you answer important questions:

  • What is it that keeps your users from converting? 
  • Why does important information fail to reach them? 
  • Are people clicking on the CTA buttons or on the useful links?
  • Is there anything that distracts them from reaching their “goal”?
  • Is there any element that causes confusion?
  • Is there room for improvement? If so, where?

Heatmaps allow you to see how users engage with your website, where they spend most of their time, and what buttons they are more likely to click on. These heat maps may come in handy when you decide to make updates on your website or some A/B testing for various elements (CTAs, copy, design, visuals). They can help you see how people react to more prominent visuals or CTA buttons and can also indicate where exactly you’re losing customers.

Picture this: you’ve got a new digital service and you’ve created a landing page to promote it and convert visitors into customers. You’ve done everything by the book: the design isn’t cluttered, the colors are nice, the copy seems to be well-chosen, the CTA is clear and to the point, the registration form looks alright… Yet you’re not converting as many users as you should. Where’s the mistake?

A heatmap can quickly lead you to the answer. It may be any of the elements we mentioned but it’s better to know for sure before you start working on them, isn’t it? More often than not, it’s some unnecessary extra step that’s messing with your long-term efforts, like a field from the form that’s not directly relevant to the process or a “Login” button featured more prominently than the “Sign up” one. If you’re targeting first-time buyers, this might be a big mishap.

Or maybe you’ve got a website with a good overall performance but with a couple of underperforming pages. You can use heatmaps to discover what the great downside is and how you can improve them. If some of the most important information available on your website is concentrated on these underperforming pages, you can understand how big of an issue this is. You can compare the results with those coming from the analysis of your top-performing page(s) in order to see what works best and to replicate it at the level of the underperforming one(s).

UX designers can benefit a lot from the use of heatmapping tools in their efforts to improve the user experience. So do digital marketers or product managers, looking to improve conversion rates searching for consumer insights. Maybe their greatest advantage is that their interpretation doesn’t require any kind of special skills or knowledge: what you see is what you get. And instead of spending endless hours trying to make sense of all that data, you can now simply use a heat mapping tool and watch the data unfold before your eyes. 

Heatmap data can be used:

  • in meetings with your teams, to share results, make predictions and help you find better marketing/design ideas
  • when you meet with your clients, in order to explain to them what changes need to be implemented and why they are necessary
  • when you meet with your boss and need to bring complex data to the table, in a form that is easily comprehensible 
  • by UX analysts and designers, to see how their efforts are playing out
  • by smaller companies with smaller budgets and marketing teams, because they are a cost-effective, easy-to-use solution

We highly recommend you to combine heat maps with on-page surveys, for better, deeper customer insights.

Conclusions

Heat mapping answers to one of our most basic needs: the one for visual content, that is easier to interpret and assimilate. Various forms of this technique have been used for a long time now, in different areas of our lives- from statistics to accounting, stock exchange, design, sports analysis, and, more recently, digital marketing.

There are three main types of heatmaps: scroll maps, move maps and click maps, depending on the kind of behavior they are tracking. The color of the spots that appear on your map indicates what elements are the most “popular” and which of them attract little to no attention at all. This will help you understand the dynamics of your website and of the various elements populating it, indicating where the highest activity and engagement are concentrated and which parts call for further improvement. Heat map analysis is a quick and simple process, making data visualizations more accessible than ever.

Heat maps can help you improve your decision-making process by providing you with timely, highly relevant, and actionable insights. There are a lot of opportunities to unlock once you understand your users’ on-site behavior. This is why it’s best to couple heat mapping with your analytics tool, on-site user surveys, and A/B testing. Because knowledge is power. And there’s no such thing as “too much” knowledge.

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