Session Replay: What It Is & How to Use It Effectively

Audrey Xu

Solutions Consultant, Amplitude

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11 -minute Read,

Posted on April 29, 2022

Discover what session replays are, how to capture them, common problems they solve, and how to pick the right session replay tool.

Session Replay

Session replay is a reconstructed presentation of how a user experiences a website or mobile application. It captures things like clicks, mouse movements, and page scrolls. Then it creates a walkthrough-style video that shows you what the user did while on your website or app. Think of it as a “session playback” or “user experience replay.”

Session replay is also known as Digital Experience Analytics (DXA) because it offers a lot of qualitative and quantitative information that builds on what other analytics tools offer. This information is critical for understanding and improving the digital customer experience; most analytics tools only offer numerical information and don’t help you view the customer experience from the eyes of the customer.

Key takeaways

  • Session replays are reproductions of website events used for improving the website experience. They’re used by product, customer support, design and UX, and marketing teams.
  • Capturing session replays requires you to enable and configure them to suit your needs. Following the right steps in this process is the key to capturing them appropriately.
  • Some common problems solved with session replays include website bugs and errors, poor conversion rates, design problems, website security threats, and customer support issues.

What is session replay?

Session replay is a powerful tool that enables teams to see and learn from the behaviors of individual users. While traditional analytics tools provide data like bounce rates, clicks, and views, a session replay is a more visual way of understanding what’s happening on your website. It’s possible to see what your users are trying to do, what their experience is like, and what needs to be improved by seeing through their eyes.

Imagine a scenario where a customer walks into a retail store. By following them around and keeping track of their movement, you can use that information to recreate their shopping experience as they lived it. That’s exactly what a session replay is, except for digital experiences.

What is session replay not?

A session replay is not the same as recording a video of the user while the user is on the website. It’s also not the same as recording the user’s screen while they’re browsing the website. It’s a reproduction of recorded events on the website. Recording a video is about capturing things as they flow using a camera or screen capture function, whereas a reproduction of events records the actions of the users in a change log, then creates a presentation from that recorded information. It’s a very subtle difference, but an important one to learn what a session replay is.

Understanding how session replay works

Every time a user interacts with your website, it’s considered an “event.” These events are maintained in a very detailed log. It’s basically the equivalent of storing every action a user takes on a website in a journal or diary.

Along with these events, the actual structure of the website is also stored in this log. When there is any action taken on your website, the log captures both the event that occurs and the structural website changes that happen. A session replay reconstructs everything that is stored in this log, producing a video of the user’s experience, so you can see what your users see.

Imagine that your website is a house, and the user is a human being inside. Opening a door in the house would be an event. The opening of the door would mean the person could walk from one room to the other, where both rooms in the house are structurally different—different sizes, different layouts, different everything. The log records both the opening of the door and the changes in the house that occur as the person walks from one room to the other. A session replay would be reconstructing the opening of the door through the eyes of the person who opened it. The approach the human took to open the door, where they walked before opening it, and where they went after opening it would all be captured and presented.

Who benefits from using session replay

Anyone who’s involved in improving the online customer experience reaps the benefits of session replay. This includes a broad range of people across your entire company, including:

  • Product team: Product managers can identify where technical bugs are by replaying sessions with website errors. They can then investigate issues to uncover and fix them instantly, rather than trying to decode the bug reports written by users.
  • Design/UX research team: UX teams can learn more about their users’ pain points by watching session replays of users interacting with the current website design. For instance, the session replay might show that users don’t play a video on a webpage as it’s placed too far down. Your design/UX research team could use this information to run an A/B test bringing the video to the top of the page, potentially drawing more views.
  • Customer support team: Session playbacks give customer support teams context on the issues users are facing, which saves time and helps them resolve customers’ problems. It’s a lot easier to understand your customer’s issue if you can see it through their eyes.
  • Marketing team: Marketers use session replays to optimize engagement and conversion rates. Marketers are empowered to run more accurate A/B tests, design website experiments, and build better landing pages for their campaigns by leveraging the qualitative data in session replays.

Integrating session replay with digital analytics

While session replay tools can be powerful, they are most effective when integrated with a traditional digital analytics product like Amplitude. Digital analytics products allow you to run reports around funnels, paths, and other items that identify potential conversion issues.

Digital analytics products are great at surfacing the biggest issues on a website or mobile app. Once these issues are identified, session replay tools can be used to “view” the problem. The combination of these tools can help organizations find and remedy conversion issues. Identifying these high-level conversion issues via session replay tools alone is possible, but may require viewing many recordings to find the potential conversion issues.

Integrating session replay tools and digital analytics tools typically involves passing a session replay recording identifier as a property to the digital analytics product. Then when digital analysts find an issue, they can filter the data to isolate users or sessions that encountered the issue and use the session replay property to zero in on recordings that demonstrate the problem.

How to prepare to capture a session replay

Every tool has its own process to capture and play a session replay. It can be as simple as going into your tool’s dashboard, picking a session to replay, and then watching it. However, there are some prerequisites that set the right foundation.

Capture a session replay by first enabling and then configuring it on your tool.

Enable session replay

You should enable session replay from within your application. Only when it’s actually enabled will your tool be able to function effectively. You should be able to do this through the “settings” within your application.

There are a few other settings you should pay attention to beyond simply enabling the replay. You should ensure real user monitoring is enabled for your application. This is the feature that monitors all user interactions on a website, which is needed for session replays to function properly.

The firewalls on your website should be configured to allow the flow of data between your website and your session replay tool. You can do this by adjusting the security settings of your website’s back end. If a firewall blocks any data, it will prevent the session replay from being captured, causing replay issues.

Ensure your tool has an active digital experience monitoring license in order to capture user events. This gives your tool the legal permission it needs to do session replays. Your website should also have a trusted certificate. This is what authenticates your website and protects your users’ private and confidential information.

Configure the options

Configure the percentage of sessions you’d like to capture in your tool’s settings. By default, most tools will capture all sessions, but this will likely use up a lot of storage space. It’s possible to capture just a portion of the sessions to utilize your website storage space optimally.

You should only record a session after getting consent from the user. Place the user consent option on a specific part of your website. For example, if you only want to record sessions of users who are on a certain page of your website, you should display an opt-in consent option on that page of your site.

It’s possible to exclude a web page from session replay recordings with “URL exclusion.” This option allows you to avoid specific website pages for session replays if you don’t want to capture user interactions on those pages.

Control who has access to session recordings based on user access permissions. This way, only those users with access to session recordings will be able to view them. For instance, you may want to allow your product team to have access to your session replays, but not the accounts department.

Common misconceptions about session replay

You might think a session replay is a video recording or screen capture of the user’s experience: it’s not. This is a common misconception as a session replay looks like a video recording. It’s really a reproduction or recreation of captured events that’s been turned into a video presentation. It’s a tool that allows you to see things from the user’s eyes, but without a camera attached to your user’s shoulders.

Another misconception is that session replays can record almost everything. You might think a session replay can capture all actions a user takes on your website. This isn’t true. A session replay cannot capture live video chats, streaming sessions, users typing on their keyboards, users clicking outside of the recorded window, users taking screenshots, any sensitive data or private information, and off-screen activities. Recording any of these events would be a serious breach of privacy.

Addressing the privacy concerns with session replay

Session replay tools need to ensure they’re addressing user privacy issues very seriously. Handling user data with utmost care is the key to building trust with users. Here are a few tips on how to address privacy concerns:

  • You should ensure your session replay tool doesn’t collect private and sensitive information at the recording stage or doesn’t play back the confidential information during the replay stage.
  • Masking protects private and confidential user data. Users entering their email addresses on your website would be confidential information. Your session replay tool should display the email address in the form of asterisks rather than alphanumeric characters, so you can’t actually view the email address without consent.
  • Session replay tools should not track users’ activities across the internet. They’re only meant for recording and replaying sessions on specific sections of your website. Therefore, session replay tools should not be used for advertising purposes, like the retargeting of ads.
  • Your session replay tool must disclose its privacy policy to users. Being transparent about your privacy policy and sharing exactly how user information will be used shows that you take their privacy seriously. Make sure you place this privacy disclosure note directly on your website, especially if you’re using a session replay tool.

5 common problems solved with session replay

Now you know what a session replay is. But what problems does it solve? Session replays solve many problems with the overall digital experience for a broad range of people. Some of these include:

1. Website bugs and errors

Identifying and fixing website bugs can be time-consuming. Without session replays, engineers need to reproduce the bug or website error and spend time decoding user bug reports to uncover the issue.

Session replays can help identify website errors with ease. For instance, they can show you page loading times, any broken links, hidden CTA buttons, and other issues your users might be facing. This provides a lot of context on the bug, helping product teams get to the bottom of it and speed up the resolution process.

For example, Moosejaw used session replays to identify and prioritize website fixes. Before using session replays, they were reactive about which bugs to fix, as they would resolve them as they’d arise. However, session replays showed which bugs were causing real pain to users and preventing them from having a good website experience. By seeing things from the customer’s eyes, they were able to see where customers felt stuck in the website experience and became more proactive about fixing the bugs that were a real cause for concern.

2. Poor conversion rates

Session replay tools give you a lot of detail on what’s happening on your site, which helps with CRO (conversion rate optimization). From the observations in the session recordings, you can hypothesize and test (through A/B testing) possible solutions for boosting conversions.

For example, User Conversion, a CRO agency, used session recordings to drive a 26% increase in conversion rates for an ecommerce client. David Mannheim, who runs User Conversion, says that session replays eliminate the bias in CRO by helping you see what’s actually occurring on a website. He also uses a Google Sheet to record observations from session replays, which forms the basis for insights for boosting conversion rates.

3. No context while supporting customers

Customers often leave feedback about an issue they encountered on your website without providing much context. Consequently, support agents often have to request more information on the issue, like screenshots or a more detailed explanation from users. If users don’t explain the issue accurately, it might leave support tickets unresolved.

Session replays provide context on the issue and show the customer support agent what’s going on. Support agents have all the necessary information they need to understand and resolve customer issues faster simply by linking customer support tickets with session replays. Some session replay tools can also be used to “go live” with the user and co-browse with them in order to identify the issue, enabling support agents to help customers in real-time.

4. Design issues

It’s next to impossible to understand user experience without directly observing users while they use your website, product, or application. Designers aren’t able to see if the design of the site is making sense to users. Moreover, UX research can be very expensive since user surveys and interviews can take a lot of time to conduct.

Session replay gives designers access to UX research on-demand and at scale to see which website design elements are not being understood by users. Designers can also view how users are interacting with the site across a range of devices, helping them customize the website experience across multiple devices, like mobile phones, tablets, and laptops.

5. Security issues or suspicious activity

There are always various cybercriminals at play who want to breach your website and steal what they can. A recent survey showed that 37% of respondents believed cybercrime to be one of the leading risks to businesses in the U.S. in 2022.

Session replays make it possible to identify potential threats. By tracking events and identifying any signs of unusual user activity, you can determine the nature of the threat and take action. The session recording will also show you if your website’s security features work as expected and are effective in preventing fraud.

Tips for choosing the right session replay platform

There is a wide range of session replay tools available in the marketplace. You need to choose the one that best suits your needs by evaluating each tool against a few selection criteria. Here are a few factors you need to take into consideration while choosing the right session replay platform:

  • Search or filter sessions: Since tools record so many sessions, the sheer volume of session replays can be overwhelming. The tool you choose should allow you to filter through session replays and search for them using specific search criteria to make your analysis efficient and focused. Think about it as searching for a product on Amazon. Their user search bar makes it simple for you to browse products and shop. A session replay tool should make it simple for you to sift through and pick sessions to analyze.
  • Data retention: Session replay tools store data for different periods of time. Choose a tool that retains the data for longer periods of time to make long-term data-driven decisions. While the default storage time is 35 days, you may want a tool that stores data for up to one year, so you can analyze session replays on an annual basis.
  • Website performance: Session replay tools will impact your website’s performance in different ways. The technology and implementation of the session replay tool can affect the speed of your website as the tool links with your website to collect important bits of data in real-time. Choose a session replay tool that doesn’t negatively impact your website’s speed.
  • Technology compatibility: Session replay tools may work with some website technologies but not with others. Some tools may work out of the box, while some may require some coding before they’re functional on your site. You should choose the platform that’s compatible with your website’s existing tech stack.
  • Number of sessions recorded: Some tools record only a portion of sessions, while others record them all. It would be hard to attach session recordings to customer support tickets and bug reports if your tool records only a small percentage of sessions. Choose a tool that ideally records all the sessions you need for your analysis.
  • Pricing: Different variables will affect the pricing of session replay platforms. The most important factors are the number of sessions they record each month, the number of team members who will have access to the recordings, and how many of the sessions you would like to be able to replay. Choose the tool with the right pricing plan for you.

References


Now that you know how session replay can help you uncover bugs and increase engagement rates, further your learning with our Mastering Engagement playbook.

Digital Optimization Guide

Audrey Xu

Audrey Xu is a solutions consultant at Amplitude, working with companies to uncover areas of opportunity and build better products. She is a self-proclaimed Amplitude nerd, and graduated with a degree from U.C. Berkeley.

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