Review of SessionCam: User Observation 2.0

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
February 16, 2015

Observing users interacting with software is a powerful and often under-used technique in user experience. Its power derives primarily from the frequent disjoint between what users say and what they do. UX research techniques such as surveys and interviews produce a lot of useful data, but self-reporting about behavior typically lacks accuracy. Plus, such research usually requires turnaround times of weeks, which does not fit into the fast cycle times of an agile development process. Observing users in context provides two key benefits:

  1. The ability to see the broader context of an activity
  2. The opportunity to observe how real users interact with a system

The costs associated with conducting such research activities can be high. It takes time—and usually money—to visit users. Plus, watching what users do during research is an imperfect way of achieving the ideal goal of naturalistic observation. However, there is now an observation technique that has no impact on research participants.

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SessionCam is a tool that lets you record customer journeys on a Web site. It enables you to record, then replay every user’s journey. In practice, playing back a session in SessionCam is similar to watching a video of a customer’s interaction with the site, as mouse movements, scrolling, and form interactions appear on the screen. The video shown in Figure 1 demonstrates some of the key features of SessionCam. It takes less than a minute to play and provides a quick introduction to the tool that is worth watching.

Figure 1—An introduction to SessionCam, on YouTube
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Using SessionCam

Let’s be clear from the outset: SessionCam provides a lot of useful functionality, but its user interface isn’t the easiest to learn or use. Getting the most out of it requires a nontrivial investment of time. The key feature of SessionCam is undoubtedly the playback of user experiences with Web sites.

I’m going to use the term observer for the person using SessionCam and user for the person who is being observed. I am also going to assume that all of the setup that SessionCam requires has already been done.

A straightforward video player–style user interface lets you play back Web interactions. You can pause or change the playback speed. (This is essential for some user interactions, when the user seems to disappear midway through to make coffee!) The playback window displays the user’s mouse movements, scrolling, and inputs—although the data is typically masked to preserve user privacy. Playback quality is generally good. However, particularly with responsive Web pages, page layouts can sometimes get a little strange. The playback window may not accurately capture every device and browser combination. In fairness to SessionCam, however, this does not affect the usefulness of video playback in any significant way.

SessionCam’s core functionality is fundamentally good, but so far we’re anticipating that browsing many hours of user-interaction playbacks for a site with any significant traffic would be a costly undertaking. There are several mechanisms that cut down the observer workload. Three of the most useful features are:

  • filtering the recordings—By using filters, an observer can reduce the number of recordings to play back to a manageable number. SessionCam’s Help describes the available filters, but some of the most useful include the following:
    • exit page—which lets you see where a user has left a user journey
    • screen resolution—which helps you to understand any issues you’re experiencing on specific devices
    • field drop-off—which lets you investigate specific form interactions
  • funnels—This feature lets you define expected user journeys and analyze interactions relating to them in more detail. This can be helpful in focusing the observer’s time on those user journeys—particularly the impacts of any design changes on them. Being able to see time-based views of the funnels helps you to quickly understand whether changes are having a positive or negative impact, then roll them back if they prove to be detrimental.
  • heatmaps—My experience has been that these heatmaps can be somewhat hit and miss, but this may have been because of my setup. Heatmaps can show
    • mouse movements
    • clicks
    • scroll reach
    • user attention

SessionCam infers user attention from the other metrics, and I must admit to finding the other heatmaps more useful in terms of understanding user behavior. They are more typical outputs from eyetracking studies and other observation software.

Using SessionCam in Practice

I’ve used SessionCam as part of a conversion-optimization activity, so this review is based primarily on my own experiences with the tool. Your mileage may vary. The most powerful part of SessionCam is undoubtedly the playback of real user experiences with a Web site. On the site we were looking at—which had not been designed in house—drop-down lists had been styled very differently from the rest of a form. While the other form elements stood out clearly from the page background, the default color of the form’s drop-down lists was almost identical to the page background. Not surprisingly, analytics showed that drop-off rates were high at this point in the user journey, and SessionCam provided further evidence of this in the video playback: a high proportion of users were missing the drop-down lists completely and scrolling up and down in frustration, before abandoning the purchase process.

Integration with Google Analytics

A recent change to SessionCam—and one with potentially great power—is the ability to integrate SessionCam with Google Analytics. This lets you view sessions using audience segments you’ve already set up within Google Analytics. When you’ve already set up Google Analytics on a Web site, this is potentially a huge time saver, and SessionCam works really well with it.


UX designers have long known that, where there is internal resistance to change, showing stakeholders clear evidence of users experiencing problems can be a powerful tool in persuading them to recognize and address issues. SessionCam meets the need for a tool that provides this data in a much more dynamic, cost-effective way than using traditional observation techniques.

One note of caution: SessionCam may sometimes get pushback from colleagues who are working in Data Protection—or whatever the US equivalent of this group is—who are concerned about the information users are entering into forms being visible to observers. Protecting user data such as payment information is a very valid concern. As I mentioned earlier, SessionCam manages this problem effectively by masking the data that users enter into form fields, so you can put their concerns to rest. 

UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. At Distribution Technology, Peter is responsible for the user experience of Web and mobile apps; working closely with analysts, testers, and developers; and developing a research program. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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