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Session Recordings

What you can learn

Visitor recordings or session recordings display the movements, clicks, scrolls, and other interactions of a real user's visit to your website. These are saved as video files, which you can play back later. It's akin to watching back a remote user testing video without the audio.

However this isn’t a user test that you have set up, it is a user going about their business because they’ve arrived on your site through their own choice (and are presumably interested in what you are offering).

It is a window onto how your real users behave when they visit and enables you to see how many of them are able to reach your goals, along with the pages that they go through to get there. Impressively you can even see what they are entering in form fields (not including passwords and credit card numbers) and how many times it takes them to get this right.

If you're wondering how it's done, it's not actually a screencast, just a recording of clicks, movements, and key stroke data overlaid on a snapshot of your website. Also not every single user gets recorded—for example, those using private browsing won't get tracked.

How to do it

You’ll need to choose some software that can record visits to use this method (see below). Installing the software is a case of picking your tool and tagging up your pages with their lines of JavaScript.

Once installed, you can then tell the software that you want to record and specify any details (perhaps you only want to see user journeys that visit a certain URL). You then leave it to gather the data, and within a few days you should have some sessions to take a look at.

Even if you don't have a lot of traffic it won't be long before you have a few hundred sessions to watch, which can be a bit intimidating. You can either be very diligent and check daily to watch the latest videos and keep on top of them, or you can wait and watch a bundle at a time (my preference).

It’s a good idea to filter them to look at those with certain characteristics (especially if you've got a lot to get through). For example, try watching all the sessions that make it to your checkout and see what the common factors are. Or maybe look at all the ones that land on a particular page and try to work out what is causing them to bounce or continue.

When looking through the videos, the aim is to build a picture of the common user behaviours that you witness. When you see something interesting happen (like a user clicking an element) make a note of it and then tally up each time you see that again in future. After watching about 50 videos I usually have a set of common actions for a page that will give a strong idea of what users want from it.

Watch out for

Careful with explanations

These recorded sessions can lack context and whilst in some cases it might be obvious why a user is getting stuck (if they are struggling with a form perhaps), you won't always know what they are looking for or what they are thinking, so be careful about attributing causes.

Some behaviour might need further investigating with a user test to understand why it is happening. For instance you'll often see users repeatedly jumping between the same two pages, which suggests they're looking for a piece of information, but it won’t tell you what that information is.

Short sessions

Quite a few of the sessions may have no useful information in, especially the ones with a single pageview: if they land, scroll and leave, you wouldn't know what it was they couldn't find or didn't like. It's usually worth disregarding the very short sessions.

More than clicks

When assessing visitor recordings you should focus on behaviours that you can’t tell from quant analytics. Don’t just look at pages people click on, but consider how long it takes them to find links, and what parts of the page they seem to engage with.

What don’t you see

One thing to remember with this kind of evidence is to record what users don’t do. For example when watching for actions that users take it can be easy to ignore that no users played a video (and thus you may not need that video).

Imperfect recordings

These recordings are good but can have issues. Occasionally modal windows or burger menus can block the rest of the recording by staying overlaid on the video and not clearing when the user has moved on. And some drop down menus or hover effects won't appear at all.

Also sometimes if the CSS changes and you come back to watch a video it can look wrong, so it's best to watch them fairly soon after they have been recorded.

Tools (and cost)

My preferred choice for session recording is Hotjar as it gives you this ability along with heatmaps for a very reasonable price (free & from $29/mo). Inspectlet have a very similar set of tools and are equally competitive in pricing (free and from $39/mo).

I’ve also used FullStory, Mouseflow, and Lucky Orange. They’re all pretty similar so take your pick!

How long does it take?

Watching a chunk of about 50 recordings takes 2-4 hours (I watch at normal speed with the 'skip pauses' in user interactions turned on).

How often should you use it?





Last updated on 6 July 2020

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A template for creating a lightweight report on a website's analytics. 15 pages including sections for summarising the important findings from quantitative data, heatmaps, and visitor recordings.

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