Visitor recordings are when you record the movements, clicks, scrolls, and other interactions of a real user's visit to your website. It’s saved as a video file, which you can play back later. It's akin to watching back a remote user testing video from the likes of usertesting.com, without audio. However this isn’t a user test that you have set up, it is just someone going about their business because they’ve arrived on your site through their own choice (and are presumably interested in what you are offering).
It is quite simply a window onto how your real users behave when they visit and enables you to see how many of them are able to reach your goals, along with the paths through pages that they take to get there. Impressively you can even see what they are entering in form fields (not including passwords and credit card numbers) and how many times it takes them to get things right.
If you're wondering how it's done, it's not actually a screencast, just a recording of clicks, movements, and key stroke data overlaid on a snapshot of your website. Also not every single user gets recorded—for example, those using private browsing won't get tracked.
Even if you don't have a lot of traffic it won't be long before you have a few hundred sessions to watch, which can be a bit intimidating. You can either be very diligent and check daily to watch the latest videos and keep on top of them, or you can wait and watch a bundle at a time.
It can be helpful to filter through them to look at only a few with certain characteristics (especially if you've got a lot to get through). For example, try watching all the sessions that make it to your checkout and see what the common factors are. Or maybe look at all the ones that land on a particular page and try to work out what is causing them to bounce or continue.
These recorded sessions can lack context and whilst in some cases it might be obvious why a user is getting stuck (if they are struggling with a form perhaps), you won't always know what they are looking for or what they are thinking, so be careful about attributing causes. Some behaviour might need further investigating with a user test to understand the why. For instance you'll often see users repeatedly jumping between the same two pages, which suggests they're looking for a piece of information, but it won’t tell you what that information is.
Quite a few of the sessions may have no useful information in, especially the ones with a single pageview: if they land, scroll, and leave you wouldn't know what it was they couldn't find or didn't like.
These recordings are good but can have issues. Occasionally modal windows or burger menus can block the rest of the recording by staying overlaid on the video and not clearing when the user has moved on. And some drop down menus or hover effects won't appear at all. Sometimes if the CSS changes and you come back to watch a video it can look wrong, so it's best to watch them fairly soon after they have been recorded.
My preferred choice for session recording is Hotjar as it gives you this ability for free along with heatmaps for a very reasonable price (from €29/mo). Inspectlet have a very similar set of tools and are equally competitive in pricing (free and from $39/mo). There are several enterprise tools out there offering this functionality too including Clicktale (price on request) and UserReplay (price on request).
Setup is quick and watching the recordings is either about a 30 min per day or couple of hours per week task.
Note: the examples in this guide are for website design, but most of the content is also applicable for native apps and software.