Hotjar is a suite of website traffic data visualization tools. It’s cheap and my go-to recommendation for sites trying to dip their toes into better understanding how users interact with their site.
But, for the most part, their heatmaps features are pretty useless. If you didn’t know, heatmaps generate pretty data visualizations highlighting more popular interactions with parts of your site.
Hotjar’s heatmap examples page actually gives a good summary of how the different heatmaps are used, but quickly:
- scroll maps show how far what percentage of people scroll on a page. If people aren’t scrolling to the bottom, you can put important info higher on the page.
- click maps shows were users click/tap in counts and as percentages, again showing you that important info should be more prominent.
- move maps shows where people hover and linger the mouse. More hovering over things implies higher user attention on those things, indicating that… you guessed it, important info should be more prominent.
People love to deduce things from looking at heatmaps, whether move, scroll, or click based, but there are no real takeaways to be had.
I can sum up all of the takeaways of all the heatmaps that have ever resulted in any sort of change in one point: important info should be most prominent. And that’s a problem.
The rare cases where heatmaps are actually helpful
Heatmaps can be helpful for settling disagreements about things like “are people seeing this? Clicking it?” that other things like Google Analytics can also do.
They can also give you a quick visual of how traffic flows throughout a page on your site, what percentage of people click here versus there. But like one photo snapped at one moment during a wedding, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of what the night was like.
If you’re making a big change to your homepage, and you do nothing else, it might be worth looking at the heatmaps for the before and after to see how activity changes for an important page.
If you have absolutely no idea how people interact with your site, but have never wondered about it and, instead, assume that others interact with your site the way you would, because, of course that’s how you use the internet, then it might be worth looking at one to challenge that assumption.
For super noobs, heatmaps can also be helpful for uncovering big blindspots. Developers get these blindspots, victims of the curse of knowledge. But after enough experience, assuming you pay attention to how your sites are being used, you know what to watch out for. Ultimately, you stop trying to be clever with the way important-to-bottom-line things are designed, like forms.
People who design sites aren’t the only ones that try to get clever, and in that way, heatmaps can be helpful in a pinch to educate site owners about something (eg. hold it up as a prop and show them they’re wrong).
Other than those outlier situations, I’m a bit at a loss.
How heatmaps probably cause more harm than good
Let’s say 100 people clicked on my Services page and 18 clicked on my Contact page. Does that mean I need to turn my Contact nav item into a big red button so it gets more clicks? What about removing Services from my navigation? Surely if I only had a contact button on my website I’d get more inquiries, yaz?
Let’s say you do learn something, the conclusions that typically leads to are usually false conclusions. Or if not, that data could have been gathered in a more easy to benchmark way (like A/B testing).
For pretty much any case I can think of, the key takeaway of what a heatmap will show can be summed up by a common culprit: the video play button that gets ignored.
Companies spend tens of thousands producing videos, add a play button to their homepage above the fold, and no one clicks it because they didn’t notice the icon.
So my original point still stands.
The solution? If it’s important, make it more prominent.
And that leaves us with our final assumption about the value of heatmaps:
That you know what’s important.
That what you think is important is what should be prominent.
And that making what you think is important more prominent will ultimately serve your audience the most.
Why assume all that?