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Study Confirms What Fusionbox Already Knows About Stock Photography

Posted by justin on Nov. 1, 2010, 6 p.m.

Fusionbox, a Denver web design firm, has long held the opinion that website imagery is only useful if it's relevant. A simple paradigm, sure – perhaps even words to live by – but in the world of design, it can be difficult to determine what's informative and what isn't.

Jakob Nielsen of useit.com has often followed Fusionbox's lead* and ranted against the use of “filler” imagery, and his most recent eye-tracking study backs up his claim.

I saw a nice image of some baby eagles on iStock; let's just use that.

Fusionbox has always advocated the use of “real” photography: pictures of your employees, your office, your projects. Using non-stock photography strengthens the connection between your user and your business; a connection that is absolutely essential to a successful website.

Okay, so I should take a picture of my cat, Miss Hammy, and use that, right?

A common sentiment, but alas, no. Relevance still matters. Even if your photography contains actual employees, students, or pets, irrelevant photos are useless – and they're going to be ignored. In Nielsen's study, a photo of Yale students was completely overlooked – even though they're probably real students – because the image had nothing to do with the content on the page.

But people love cats!

On a cat adoption site, yes. On ICanHasCheezburger.com, yes. As a sidebar to your home-stitched tea cozy website? No.

In part one of Nielsen's study, users spent 10% more time looking at employee portrait photos versus reading the biography text. Users wanted to get a quick overview of the team, and the images assisted them in doing so. “The key point is that these are real people who actually work at the company. In contrast, users ignore stock photos of 'generic people'.”

Product Images

Shopping sites aren't immune to filler imagery, either. A product photo isn't automatically informative.

Nielsen's study compares two product listings: one page of bookcases, another of televisions. The bookcase thumbnails were carefully scrutinized, whereas the television images were largely ignored and their text descriptions received attention.

That's silly. They're both full of product photos!

Yes, but while the bookcase images showed differences in visual detail, the television images essentially all look the same – except for the superimposed stock photography showing “what's on.” These filler images don't assist the user in making a decision, and thus, they rely on the textual details.

“The difference between these 2 screenshots is obvious: the TV photos are of no help in deciding between the products. A guy in a canoe vs. a football player? What, because I watch more football than watersports, I'll buy the TV showing a football player?”

You said it, Jakob.

Fusionbox has always urged its clients to use personal, communicative imagery on their websites; filler images only distract the user by cluttering the page. Now, if we could just do a study on Comic Sans...

TL;DR: Stock photos are ignored by most users. Fusionbox said it, Jakob Nielsen proved it.

*This is not true, but we'd like to think it is.