The Heatmap and When to Use One

Who Doesn't Love a Good Visualization?

Posted 10 months ago by Tom Maiaroto.

So I've seen a rash of heatmaps spring up across various analytic tools out there. They've become increasingly popular, but end users should be careful. Heatmaps have very specific uses and chances are you've seen a few misuses. Really what we're seeing is marketing gimmick.

Obviously heatmaps are a wonderful tool for ocean temperatures and other weather needs, but what about web metrics? Actually, despite the increasing number of tools featuring them, the uses are limited. Here are a few valid reasons why one would choose this visualization;

  • Seeing where visitors click on a web page in order to determine if there is confusing UI
  • On a geographic map for visitor location or mention location, etc.
  • Eye tracking (extremely advanced, difficult to pull off, and you should be extremely skeptical if you see it)

I think the biggest problem I see all comes down to the first situation here. Looking at where visitors click on a web page, video, etc. is nothing new. We've seen this bit of JavaScript for well over 6 years now. Google Analytics started using the trick as well. However, it's mostly a gimmick. Why? Because your analytics already tracks which pages visitors are viewing and the referring page from where they came. You don't need a heatmap to see visitor flow through your site. It's not even a more efficient way of visualizing your data. Sorting a table by popular pages and referring pages is much faster and seeing a number tells you more than a vague heatmap. A heatmap would never allow you to determine the difference between 300 clicks and 305 clicks for example...And it may be important.

However, seeing where visitors click on your web page may be useful for user interface reasons. Are visitors clicking on a graphic or piece of text that they believe should be a link? Normal analytics wouldn't tell you this because there would be no page load. So in this case, a click heatmap would be good.

How about a mouse position heatmap? Sadly, this is completely useless. Someone may tell you it's "intent" to take action, but really we simply move our mouse out of the way to read things. It has nothing to do with intent at all. Gimmick.

On to geographic maps. Well of course there's a big use case here. Take, for instance, this heatmap to the left here which mapped mentions across social media for Hurricane Sandy.

Alternatively, an analytics tool might show you a map with certain countries, states, or other regions in various shades of a color. However, a heatmap can be more useful in these cases. Not a gimmick.

There's one last point I'd like to make here. I've seen the subject of "eye tracking" come up. Keep in mind that you can not tell where visitors are looking on your page. In theory it sounds plausible, but in reality we're not there yet. Anyone who is telling you that they can is lying to your or themselves. Probably both.

First, only some web browsers support the built in webcam of a computer and that requires special permission. Permissions which most users would immediately decline. Second, not all computers even have webcams. Last, one would need to calibrate for each different size of computer and the position of the webcam. A web browser would tell you the operating system of a computer, but not the specific model. So measurements would be a nightmare. 

So hopefully that explains why it can't be done...Or why it's not worthwhile to try. The only exception here is with mobile devices. They are relatively similar in design and when you're talking about the iPad or iPhone, you know the device is always exactly the same. Further, a native application could utilize the camera without an annoying permissions popup. There has also been a lot of research into eye tracking for mobile devices (just Google it). This might be the only argument one has for a heatmap that displays where a user's eyes were looking. Anything else would be make believe -- especially on the web.

Be careful when you see heatmaps in your tools and be sure to understand why you are visualizing your data in this manner. Most times they are simply marketing gimmicks because they look neat.




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