How even beautiful data visualizations can be just plain wrong and mislead you

While we totally get that they're very cool to look at, they're also rarely providing any actionable insights or worse, they can actually mislead you in a big way.

What are heatmaps?

Heatmaps give you an idea of which zones on your webpages are mostly clicked or hovered. They use a color palette where red means a zone with lot of mouse activity and blue (or no color), almost no activity.

A lot of analytics tool have the heatmap as feature. They're nice to look at and look pretty simple to understand. One thing for sure, they allowed some analytics solutions providers to make quite some good money. So, it's natural that the question "do you have a heatmap" often pops up when talking with prospects. Our answer is very simple: "No."

Why we don't offer heatmaps?

While we totally get that they look super cool to show to your boss. The reality is that heatmaps are rarely actionable and in many cases, they can even be misleading. Here's why.

Screen sizes are getting out of control

All websites and apps today receive trafic from smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops. As a result, heatmaps providers work around this by creating separating analysis for each type of device. But even for smartphones only, this often means 300+ different screen resolutions. This makes heatmapping a mobile application or a website close to impossible, especially if you have a website with a good responsive design, any heatmap tool will show wrong results.

Yes we know that some editors claim to handle these "responsive designs", the truth is that it is impossible to blend results for different screen sizes. The only solution is to analyze on a per screen size basis. This can mean analyzing 500+ heatmaps for a single page. Good luck with that! 😀

Single Page Applications a.k.a SPA

This one is a bit technical but I'll make it easy for you to understand.

The web is getting more and more complex in terms of web technologies. Single Page Applications with dynamic page elements that expand, hide, scroll, animate, are becoming the norm. Especially with HTML5, applications are getting increasingly interactive (which is great) but means also that the concept of "static pages" is becoming more and more obsolete. So the concept of "page" is getting a bit blur here. A single page can now take many different forms and display a lot of different elements depending on how the user interacts with it. This kind of application makes heatmapping just impossible.

Think of when you are on Facebook on your laptop for example, while you can stay on the very same page, you can expand some comments or hide some items. A heatmap tool will be completely lost here and will show wrong results.

Aggregated data is bad data

At Air360 we're all about segmenting data as much as possible. Any averaged data is crap. As you read above, analyzing any page on your website correctly would require you to go ALL possible screen resolutions, which can be 100's of heatmaps to analyze. To make things even worse, these heatmaps will show you data aggregated for all your visitors. It means mixing new visitors who are discovering your website for the first time, with the returning visitors who already know how your website works.

Of course, some editors will allow you to segment as well, but let's say we just want to analyze returning vs. new visitors for 50+ different screen sizes, that would mean 100 heatmaps to analyze. Sounds fun? 😀

Eye tracking? Really? 😑

Ok this one is almost fraudulent. We saw some companies claiming that their heatmap would track where the user looks at. Let's be clear on this one, it is NOT possible. These technologies rely on where the user moves her mouse on the screen. I don't know for you, but I don't move my mouse where my eyes are looking at. I know some people do, but far from everyone does.

So showing "mouse activity" will result in biased data.

Not actionable

Ok let's forget for a few minutes all of the technical problems above. Let's pretend that heatmap tools do actually work.

What can you really do with something like this? Seriously.

At Air360, we're not about analytics for the sake of analytics and trendy visualizations. We're here to provide actionable insights with the shortest/lowest amount of invested time for our customers. And we consider Heatmap is obviously not one of them.

However, if you're interested to have a cool visualization to understand if your users enjoy your content, give Air360 a try!