In 1991, Cormac Kinney developed a software program to help securities traders beat the market.
The program created huge virtual chessboards, with one tradable security on each square. If that security’s price (or any other metric, such as volatility) fell during trading, its square turned red. If it rose, on the other hand, the square turned blue. Traders could very quickly see where changes in the market demanded action, or where opportunities presented themselves.
Although this kind of display had been around for a while, it had remained within the statistical and scientific communities. Kinney brought it into the light, gave it a name (‘heatmap’) and trademarked it. He had exploited the fact that the human eye can spot differences in color more easily than it can compare numbers – an insight that, incidentally, enabled him to clean up on Wall Street.
What do heatmaps do?
The reason heatmaps are popular, of course, is that they aggregate very large amounts of data and transform them into simple, immediate visual representations.
Typically, a heatmap will show spots of activity or engagement. These are usually portrayed in red, fading through orange and yellow to ‘cooler’ areas in green and then blue. Some heatmaps are portrayed in grayscale, and some will instead move through red to ‘white-hot’ areas.
The point is that the eye is immediately drawn to the hotter areas – and, depending on the purpose, possibly also the cooler areas. These are the most extreme data points: they shout the loudest for our attention. And that’s the whole point of heatmaps: being told where to look.
Who might use heatmaps?
Almost anyone! We’re all familiar with heatmaps now, because they’re such a popular tool. They can help us to understand all kinds of information, varying in sophistication:
- Weather forecasters produce literal heatmaps, showing how temperatures vary across a region.
- Football clubs use heatmaps to show the behavior of players in possession of the ball.
- Heatmaps can show you where energy is escaping from your home.
- Governments use heatmaps to show the distribution of, say, diabetes, illiteracy or crime.
- Heatmaps can show changes in gene expression following chemotherapy in cancer patients.
- A choropleth heatmap can show election results by municipality.
- And, of course, heatmaps can show you how people interact with your website.
What can a webpage heatmap tell you?
There are different kinds of heatmap, each showing you hotter and cooler areas of visitor activity. In an ideal world, you should be able to predict exactly where the warmer and cooler areas would be, according to how you’ve designed your webpage.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. What if there’s very little user activity around a button you consider really important – so it’s cool where it should be hot?
Or what if there’s a lot of activity where users are trying to click on an unclickable page element – hot when it should be cool? These are just a couple of simple examples to show you how heatmaps can highlight technical and user-experience (UX) problems for you to resolve.
How important are webpage heatmaps?
Heatmaps offer immediate visual appeal and a lot of useful information. They can provide richer insight than traditional web analytics tools alone. They’re a great way to get into understanding how and why to optimize your website, and will remain a helpful tool.
However, it’s worth noting a few points:
- They’re all about the extremes, rather than the middle ground.
- Heatmaps point out where on the page a problem exists, but usually leave it to you to interpret why. Just because a user is dwelling or clicking in an area doesn’t mean they’re engaged with that area. They might be looking at something away from their cursor; they might be absent-mindedly clicking on an image while chatting on the phone.
Is a heatmap all you need?
It’s important to see heatmaps as just one tool in a box that should also contain industry standards such as Google Analytics, for example, plus a range of A/B testing tools, session recording tools, and more. The more sophisticated products in this field offer a comprehensive suite of features of their own. Rather than replicating what’s available in other products, they instead integrate with those other products. Some even offer smart algorithms that assess and prioritize the biggest problems on your website.
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