What is a heatmap?

Everything you need to know about using heatmaps to analyse visual content – from mouse maps to eye tracking and AI

Heatmaps provide a powerful insight into what happens when someone looks at your website or content. Using and understanding heatmaps can give you a clear picture of how your content is performing, allowing you to make data-driven decisions to increase interaction and ROI.  

But what is a heatmap and how can you use heatmap analytics to understand customer behaviour? 

This article will help you to understand just that, giving you an overview of the types of heatmaps available to analyse content and their respective capabilities. This will include everything from mouse clicks to AI-driven predictive attention analytics. We’ll also explain how you can use heatmaps to improve the effectiveness of your website or visual content.

Read on to discover everything that you need to know about heatmaps.

What is a heatmap?

Heatmaps are a valuable tool when it comes to visualising and understanding how customers react to and interact with your content.

Heatmap analytics are represented graphically, making the data easy to digest and understand. Customer attention is represented by colour, with the most popular areas of content said to be hot whilst the least popular are said to be cold.

By using and understanding heatmaps, businesses can gain an insight into user behaviour, gaining a clear understanding of how people interact with content.

For example, a website heatmap will show which aspects grab the users’ attention, what they click on, how they scroll and which parts of the content they ignore. This information can help businesses to identify trends and optimise their content to increase engagement and conversion.

Where are heatmaps used?

Heatmaps are most commonly associated with analysing websites. However, limiting heatmaps to only being used on websites would be extremely short-sighted, as heatmaps can bring benefits to understanding any type of content that a customer may be consuming.

Heatmaps also play an important role in understanding saliency – the extent to which an element or object stands out from its surroundings and other design elements. This makes heatmaps a useful tool when it comes to determining the saliency of packaging, in-store displays, promotional materials and video marketing. Anywhere that you’re expecting your customers to look could benefit from the behavioural data of a heatmap.

What are the types of heatmap?

We can categorise heatmaps into two broad categories: interaction heatmaps and attention heatmaps. In this section, we will explain the different types of heatmaps within both categories and give examples of how they can be used.

Our heatmap categorisation and hierarchy:

Interaction heatmaps

  • Click maps
  • Mouse move maps
  • Scroll maps

Attention heatmaps

  • Eye tracking attention heatmaps
  • Predictive attention heatmaps

Interaction heatmaps

Interaction heatmaps measure active engagement on a webpage, allowing you to see the type of interaction that users have with your website. Interaction heatmaps can measure mouse movements, clicks and scrolls, giving you an in-depth understanding of how consumers use your website and the types of interaction that they have.

Click maps

Click maps provide a graphical representation of where users click. This includes mouse clicks on desktop devices and finger taps on mobile devices. Click maps allow you to clearly see which elements of your webpage of being clicked on and which elements are being ignored.

Mouse move maps

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between where a user moves their mouse and where their attention lies on a webpage. Mouse move maps track where a user moves their mouse as they navigate a webpage, giving you a clear indication of where users are looking as they interact with your webpage.

Scroll maps

Scroll maps help you to visualise how visitors to your website scroll through your webpages. They do this by providing a graphical representation of how many visitors scrolled down to any point on the page. The hotter an area is, the more users are seeing it. This can help you to position your calls-to-action in a place where you know that they will be seen.

Due to their nature, interaction heatmaps can only be used on interactive content such as websites and mobile apps. A different type of heatmap is required for non-interactive content.

Attention heatmaps

There are many types of content which aren’t interactive so can’t be analysed using interaction heatmaps. This includes packaging design, advertising, shopper marketing, social media and video content. This is where attention heatmaps really excel.

Attention heatmaps can be used on both websites and non-interactive content. These heatmaps allow you to visualise a consumer’s attention as they look at your content, discovering where their eyes move and which aspects of your content grasp the consumer’s attention.

There are two types of attention heatmap, which we will focus on for the rest of this section: eye tracking heatmaps and predictive attention heatmaps.

Eye tracking heatmaps

Eye tracking heatmaps collect primary data to enable you to visualise how a sample audience views your content. Eye movements and fixation durations are measured to build an accurate picture of how consumers see your content.

Predictive attention heatmaps

Predictive attention heatmaps utilise artificial intelligence to predict where a typical audience would be likely to look when viewing your content, using artificial intelligence. The data is displayed as a heatmap, providing a graphical representation of consumer attention.

How do heatmaps work?

How a heatmap works depends on the type of heatmap being used.

Interactive heatmaps such as click maps, mouse move maps and scroll maps measure the type and amount of engagement with the webpage. To do this, they use tracking codes which record interactions between a user and a website for future analysis.

Attention heatmaps instead take into consideration how viewers look at content by tracking or predicting their eye movements as they view content.  

How do eye tracking attention heatmaps work?

As mentioned, eye tracking heatmaps gather primary data about where a sample audience looks when observing content.

Eye movements are traditionally measured using specialist technology worn by the test audience to monitor eye movements as the wearer looks at a webpage or piece of content. Eye tracking heatmaps measure how many times each element is looked at, as well as fixation durations.

This data is then plotted in the form of an eye tracking heatmap, giving you a clear visualisation of consumers’ attentional processes. This can help you to identify the most and least interesting and engaging aspects of your content.

Eye tracking heatmaps are expensive to create due to the specialist software required and the time that it takes to complete. Due to the costs involved, these heatmaps are usually based on a small sample size and can take several days to undertake.

Newer approaches to eye tracking utilise readily available webcams instead of specialist hardware and are therefore more cost effective. However, this comes with the trade-off of reduced accuracy.

As eye tracking heatmaps reflect real user behaviour as a result of the complex decision-making processes that go on inside our brains and may differ from one person to another. For this reason, they may be considered to be an accurate research tool but they are sensitive to the selection, biases and preferences of the test audience.

How do predictive attention heatmaps work?

Predictive attention heatmaps also measure saliency to determine attention but do so by making predictions of how a typical user will interact with content without requiring a live test audience.

Predictive attention heatmaps can be based on an understanding of the biological processes in the human brain, a machine-learning approach analysing large datasets of eye tracking responses or a mixture of the two.  Because of this approach, they can provide results which are representative of large audiences that would be impractical to source for individual tests.  As a result, predictive attention heatmaps are not biased towards a small ground of test viewers.

As predictive attention heatmaps use artificial intelligence to detect saliency, these heatmaps are able to produce data very quickly, at a fraction of the cost of eye-tracking. This makes predictive attention heatmaps much more accessible to many businesses than eye-tracking analytics. Predictive attention analysis is also repeatable and can therefore easily be applied to A/B or multivariate testing.

Eye tracking heatmaps vs predictive attention heatmaps

There are many similarities but also many differences between eye tracking heatmaps and predictive attention heatmaps. The table below compares some of the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of attention heatmap.

When to use heatmap data analytics

Heatmaps can be useful in almost any situation where you’re aiming to grasp a potential customer’s attention. This includes through websites, packaging, advertising and even in-store promotions.

Here are five examples of where heatmap data analytics are commonly used.

1.     Websites

One of the most popular uses for heatmap analytics is for optimising website design. The variety of heatmaps available, whether website interaction or website attention heatmaps, can be combined to give you a clear understanding of your customer’s journey, allowing you to optimise the path-to-purchase journey to increase your conversion rates.

Heatmap analytics can also help you to increase your click-through rates on key promotions or landing pages through predictive analytics. A/B testing can be carried out to find the most effective design for a landing page, optimising the customer journey and increasing conversion rates.

Website heatmaps can also be used alongside other web analytics tools like Google Analytics for a more in-depth understanding of website performance.

2.     Packaging

Packaging is the first thing that customers notice about a product, so it’s crucial that it has the right impact. You can use a heatmap to assess the saliency of your packaging, ensuring that key messaging is seen first. This will help to improve brand recall and perception whilst increasing sales.

By using heatmap analytics, you can also run A/B tests to compare variants of packaging, making sure that you get it right first time. This helps to speed up testing cycles and reduce overall costs.

3.     Video content

Video marketing is a powerful content strategy which is being adopted by an increasing number of businesses. According to research by Hubspot, businesses publish an average of 18 videos each month. But there’s no point in putting resources into video marketing if it isn’t having the desired effect.

Heatmaps analytics are a valuable tool for video marketing. Using heatmaps for video can help you to understand how your viewer’s attention changes through the video. It can also help you to find the right place for your call to action, helping to increase your click-through and conversion rates.

4.     Shopper experience

It’s no secret that brands and retailers spend a lot of money on in-store promotions, but it’s important that these are seen by the largest number of shoppers in order to be effective. Heatmap analytics enable in-store teams to validate the effectiveness of campaign materials and ensure the most effective placement.

Customer heatmaps can be used to assess customer behaviour within a shop in relation to key promotions. Using heatmaps to enhance shopper experience can help to improve ROI on visual merchandising whilst saving time in comparison to traditional testing methods.

5.     On-shelf attention

It’s well-known that Gerald Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School, claims that 95% of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. But how can you tap into that subconscious and make sure that it’s your products that are purchased?

Predictive heatmap analytics can measure your share of attention on the shelf, helping you to maximise your brand exposure and give your products the best possible chance of winning the attention. With heat map marketing, you’ll gain intelligence on how your product design impacts on its performance, enabling you to make changes which increase sales.

How to understand heatmaps

Heatmaps are often favoured for their easy-to-digest design. However, they may appear quite complicated at first, especially if you’ve never seen a heatmap before.

We’ll talk you through three tips to help you to understand heatmaps. 

1.     Understand the colour palette

It’s important to understand the colour palette when you’re looking at a heatmap. Typically, the most popular (hot) elements will be coloured red whilst the unpopular (cold) elements will be blue. However, some tools use different colour palettes so it’s important to check this so that you understand what you’re looking at.

2.     How to read a heatmap

Once you understand the colour palette of your heatmap, you’ll be able to see which areas are most popular and which are lacking in attention. If a call to action is lacking in attention, the chances are that it’s in the wrong place and may need to be moved to an area with higher attention. 

3.     Beyond heatmaps: Metrics vs colours

Heatmaps provide a valuable way to quickly visualise and digest a large amount of data. However, sometimes you need to move from colours into quantifiable metrics. This is particularly useful when you’re comparing performance across multiple pieces of content.

You can use the metrics behind heatmaps to provide insight into individual design elements and to calculate the share of attention on different design elements.

Which metrics are used to analyse heatmaps?

When you begin to delve deeper into your heatmap, you’ll need to understand the metrics that are used for analysis. This will give you a deeper understanding of the data that is behind your heatmap and a clear insight into consumer behaviour.

There are three key metrics that we use for analysing attention heatmaps at Dragonfly AI. These are:

  • Probability of Perception (PoP)
  • Share of Attention (SoA)
  • Location Attention Score (LAS)

Each of these metrics will give you different insights into your content, giving you a detailed understanding of how consumers are viewing your content.

Probability of Perception (PoP)

Probability of Perception, also known as POP, provides an estimate of the percentage of consumers who are likely to notice an element at first glance.

PoP can help you to ensure that the most important elements of your content are seen first, whilst also making sure that less important elements aren’t taking that attention.

Share of Attention (SoA)

Share of Attention, also known as SoA, estimates the percentage of attention that is given to each individual element of your content. This enables you to compare the relative performance of multiple elements within your content.

You can use SoA to ensure that the most important elements within your content are getting the most attention. It can also help you to identify less important areas which might be attracting too much attention, allowing you to soften these elements to make them less distracting.

Location Attention Score (LAS)

Location Attention Score, also known as LAS, estimates the average level of saliency of each area of an element within your content. This helps you to understand how attention-grabbing each area of an element is.

LAS is calculated by dividing each element into equally sized squares which are each rated for saliency. The data generated through LAS can help you to assess the effectiveness of each element of your content.  

How to make decisions based on your heatmap

Heatmaps can provide you with a wealth of information about the performance of your content. This can then be used to inform decisions to increase your engagement and improve your conversion rates.

Content that is too cold

The first thing to look for on your heatmap is where important content is colder than you want it to be. If your content is too cold, it won’t be getting the attention that it deserves. This is particularly problematic if the cold area is a call to action.

If your call-to-action button isn’t getting enough traffic due to its positioning on the screen, your heatmap will help you to move it into a place with higher traffic, where it is more likely to be seen and interacted with.

Content that is too hot

This may sound a bit strange but bear with us here: your content can also be too hot. You want your visitors to be looking at the principle visual elements, such as your key messaging and your call-to-actions. You may find that users are becoming distracted with other elements on screen which are taking the attention away from your main call-to-action.

If users are becoming distracted by less important design elements, you may need to soften or remove these to reduce distraction and help direct attention to where you want it to be.

A/B and MVT (multi-variant testing)

Heatmaps are an extremely useful tool when it comes to comparing different variations of content. They can help you to understand which version will perform better, helping you to get it right first time.

Whether it’s a landing page or product packaging, A/B testing will allow you to test version A versus version B; whilst multi variant testing allows multiple concepts to be tested to discover which will be most effective.

Keeping the clarity

To avoid confusing your viewer, your content should have a clear visual hierarchy which guides them naturally through the information. Your viewer should be able to interpret a well-designed piece of content in a matter of seconds.

You can use your heatmap to identify any areas of confusion. If you notice more than five hotspots in one area, or if the hotspots appear to be merging together, it’s likely that your content may be confusing your viewers. In this case, it’s a good idea to adapt the design to improve clarity.

In summary

Heatmaps provide a powerful insight into how consumers interact with your content. They can help you to make informed, data-driven decisions to improve attention and increase conversion rates, whether you’re redesigning your website, looking to improve your video content or optimising in-store displays.

Speak to one of our experts to discover more about heatmaps.


  • General
  • Heatmaps

← Back to posts