Last updated Nov 17 2020

The complete guide to session recordings

Session recordings (or session replays) are one of the best tools in your UX toolbox when you want to see how people really navigate through your website and collect the insight you need to fix the user experience and improve conversions.

This guide starts on this page with a full introduction to session recordings. Other chapters include a deep-dive into the best ways to watch recordings to get actionable insight, a list of case studies and success stories, and a step-by-step set of instructions to help you get started. There’s nothing quite like watching real users interact with your website for the first time so… let’s get you there!

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What are session recordings (or session replays)?

Session recordings are renderings of real actions taken by visitors as they browse a website. Recordings capture mouse movement, clicks, taps, and scrolling across multiple pages on desktop and mobile devices.

Also known as session replays, user recordings, and user/visitor replay tools, session recordings are used to gain a real understanding of how users interact with a website, which then helps fix issues, optimize UX, and ultimately improve conversion rate.

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5 ways session recordings help you understand your customers

Recordings and replays are an extremely powerful tool for gaining insight into how users behave—they are one of the closest things to being in the same room as your users and see exactly how they interact with your site. Here are five of the most popular ways session recordings can teach you more about your customers.

1. Understand and empathize with your visitors’ experience

Putting yourself in your users’ shoes allows you to empathize with them, experience what they’re going through as they browse your website, and build a more enjoyable and efficient user experience as a result. It doesn’t take more than 10-20 recordings to start seeing where visitors are getting stuck—and you may even already spot what’s persuading them to convert.

2. See how users interact with specific website elements

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Session recordings let you really zoom in on how users interact with key elements on your website. Where users focus, what they click on, which sections they spend a lot of time on, what they skip over… recordings allow you to stop speculating about it all and start using real data to make impactful changes.

3. Discover bugs, issues, and obstacles

Watching session replays where users get stuck, confused, and frustrated as they experience issues is one of the fastest ways to improve your website.

Barriers (obstacles that stop a customer from progressing) can be both technical and informational: look out for broken elements and loading issues in addition to misleading micro-copy or unclear instructions.

4. Find out why people are leaving your website

Spot opportunities to reduce bounce rates and keep people on your website by watching session replays from users who left your site without converting.

Look for patterns of user behavior—did they navigate erratically? Did they miss an important link? Did they encounter a bug? Answer these questions and you’ll know what needs improving.

5. Help team members, clients, and stakeholders make decisions

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Recordings are easy to share, straightforward to watch, and provide evidence for getting people onboard before making design decisions and optimizations.

Whether you’re a UX designer, CRO specialist, or marketer, user session recordings will help you make data-driven decisions and showcase the effectiveness of your work to people across teams.

What can you see with session recordings?

Session recordings show you everything a user sees in their browser.

Record mouse movement, scrolling, and clicks on desktop

Each user session recording will display mouse movement, clicks, and scrolling in real-time (but you always have the option to speed up or slow down the video you’re watching). To make it easier to spot patterns, movement is displayed as red lines that remain on the screen.

Replay scrolling and taps on mobile

Session replay tools work just as well on mobile—scrolling and taps are captured in recordings.

Multiple page views

When a user navigates to a new page (or refreshes a page), the session will keep recording as a whole, making it possible for you to view a video playback of a visitor's journey across multiple pages without interruption.

Record keyboard strokes

Session recordings will track keystroke data (information typed by users) in limited cases if you allow certain fields. By default, trustworthy session recording tools like Hotjar automatically anonymize personally identifiable information (like the data a user would input in a credit card field) and have features in place that help you suppress specific elements.

Useful extra reading

If you decide to give Hotjar recordings a try, it’s important that you know privacy is crucial to us. Read more about Hotjar’s approach to privacy to get a better understanding of what information you can and cannot see with recordings—and, yes, our session recordings can be used to comply with the GDPR.

What to look for in your session recordings

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If you’ve never watched user recordings before, we recommend just sitting back, clicking ‘play’, and watching a few — it’s always a ‘wow!’ moment when you see real people interact with your website for the first time.

After the first few recordings, you will probably begin to spot trends in your visitor behavior and the way they interact and engage with your website or app. You’ll start noticing:

  • What elements visitors use to navigate from one page to another
  • How visitors interact—or fail to—with buttons and clickable elements
  • Unusual mouse activity, for example, wild scrolling or repeated clicking
  • If it takes too long to complete an action
  • How visitors move around on the page and where they stop

You’ll also be able to see problems that need fixing, for example:

  • Page(s) that load incorrectly across different devices and/or browsers
  • Functionality that doesn’t work like it should (example: log in not working, search bar not returning results)
  • Elements that render incorrectly, are missing and/or broken

We’ll cover this more thoroughly in the chapter dedicated to user recordings analysis.

FAQs

Session replays are reconstructions of actions taken by real, anonymized visitors as they browse your website. Also known as session recordings, user recordings, and user or visitor replay tools, session replays help you understand user behavior so you can learn how to improve the overall user experience and increase conversion rates.

Session replays let you watch real visitors’ keyboard strokes, mouse movements, and clicks—they show you how users scroll across multiple pages to interact with different features and elements on your site, whether on desktop or mobile devices.

Follow these 6 steps to analyze Hotjar Session Recordings:

  1. Get in the zone: prepare for your watching session by finding a place where you can spend a couple of uninterrupted hours to watch recordings. Make sure you have everything you’ll need to take notes.
  2. Define your goal: figure out what it is you want to learn from your watching session. Some common goals are to identify blockers and pain points, learn how to improve your product features, see where people are getting stuck in the sales funnel, and find bugs or opportunities for improvement.
  3. Narrow down your data: use filters, tags, and sorting options to find the recordings you need. You can keep track of recordings that are specific to individual pages, elements, or features on your site—or you can configure a recording to learn more about a specific customer journey.
  4. Know what you’re looking for: you’ll probably need to watch about 10-20 recordings before you get into a good viewing flow. After that, you’ll be able to recognize patterns in user behavior so you can identify common pain points and blockers.
  5. Mark your recordings: use Hotjar’s built-in features to tag, highlight, or add notes to your recordings so you can filter and group them, and come back to them later.
  6. Decide what to tackle first: some things to consider before you start making changes based on what you’ve learned from session recordings:
  • The type (and the amount) of additional research that might be required to fully understand what needs to change
  • The resources—time, money, effort—it will cost to implement changes
  • How much a particular change will affect the user experience
  • How many people (including your team and your users) will be affected by the change

Getting started with recordings is easy to do when you have the right session recording software—and Hotjar makes getting started with session recordings especially easy by automatically triggering your first recording as soon as your Tracking Code is installed on your site. Learn more about how to set up session recordings in the Getting Started chapter of this guide.

To get the most out of your session recordings—and to fully understand your users’ behavior so you can learn how to improve and optimize your site—session recordings should be combined with other website analytics tools.

Consider combining recordings with these other analytics tools for more insight:

Learn more about which tools to combine with session recordings in the Advanced chapter of this guide.

Yes! Hotjar Session Recordings let you watch anonymized visitors scroll and tap across multiple pages so you can see how they interact with different features and elements on mobile devices.

Hotjar offers 365-day data retention on every plan. Our sampling method—which lets you collect samples of data from anonymized users—and our 365-day data retention policy are perfect for keeping an eye on overall trends or common pain points over a period of time.