Your website is almost done. You have your design sketched out. The sitemap has been approved. All that’s left to do is add a few pictures…
But wait! Before you grab some random stock photo, put some thought into the images you choose. Photos are more than just design; they are a critical part of branding. If you aren’t careful, your pretty pictures can lead to a poor user experience.
Photos and Branding
Believe it or not, photos are essential for defining who a company, product, or service is and what they are about. They are a part of a brand’s visual identity; something site visitors will use to understand who the business is and what they are about. Because of their importance in the branding process, companies should pay very close attention to the photos they use and how they are using them. Without the right amount of effort, even the most attractive picture can negatively impact a brand.
The problem with stock photos
Many designers rely on stock photos for their websites. This is often the easiest option, but before you throw a simple image on your hard work, you should think about the effect it may have on the user experience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what words are you inadvertently saying? A stock photo may be sending the wrong message.
Stock photos are designed to be used by many people. To create them, a single photo shoot produces multiple images that can be used for a variety of purposes (as illustrated in this CNN article). That means one photo can be purchased thousands of times and used for reasons that aren’t even remotely related. While this provides a convenient way to access plenty of visual content, it does little to encourage consumer trust. If consumers recognize an image from another brand, they may wonder who is trustworthy – especially when those images are used in testimonials.
Even if highly edited, recognizable features, such as a person’s face are often still recognizable. If that model has been used elsewhere, users may begin to associate the photo with the model instead of the brand. For photos without faces, or groups of faces, you may not have to worry about that type of recognition, but you could worry about a familiar theme. Certain stock photos, especially those listed in this blog post already have their own reputation. If you use a popular stock photo theme, you risk users associating the image with where they last saw it. Plus, if the image is popular enough, it may become a meme, which could be disastrous to a brand that is also using the same photo.
How photos help branding
Photos should help a brand, not hinder it. Unfortunately, many stock photos are guilty of doing the latter. When used correctly, photos help create the visual identity of a brand. Without an image to associate the brand with, consumers will form their own perceptions based on what they experienced. Unfortunately, many of the other ways people form perceptions such as:
- Typography and colors
- Employees or other brand representatives
… are not as easy to define as a photo is. With pictures, a brand gains even more control over how their visual identity is portrayed. This is simply because photos can be used to not only look good, but also to relay a message.
A carefully considered photo can relay a powerful statement without using words. In fact, when it comes to messaging, academic studies are proving that photos make a far greater impact. When combined with a social media strategy or a traditional advertising campaign, images can portray a clear message of who a brand is. With all this power, why would you use a random stock photo?
Selecting images for your brand
Planning the perfect images for your website takes time and effort. You need to understand your potential user first. Think about the audience and how they will interpret the images you choose. During the planning process, create user personas and keep those characters in mind as you select the perfect photos.
Selecting the right photo will help create a powerful visual identity that will strengthen any branding efforts. Here are some tips for selecting the perfect image.
- Use images that evoke emotions
- Use images that have the customer in it
- Use images that can be manipulated to match the brand
- Use images that show action of some sort
- Use images that tell a story
It’s also important to remember that images can mean more than photos. Infographics, typographic images, illustrations, and even charts can provide a more powerful message than most stock images. The idea is choosing visual content that supports the brand while also providing utility to the user.
Branding and User Experience
Pictures are a powerful way to define a brand, but this means nothing if that brand provides a poor user experience. Therefore, understanding how to leverage imagery for both branding and user experience planning should be every web designer’s goal.
What is user experience?
Before we can dive into how poorly chosen photos can distract from the user experience, it helps to understand what user experience is. When it comes to web design, user experience is a measure of the value obtained from interaction with a brand. The experience can be negative, positive or neutral, and it is based on both user perception of the brand and the personal experiences that occurred before interacting with the brand.
Creating a great user experience can be challenging because it is difficult to quantify. After all, the value of an experience is based on emotions, and people’s emotions can change on a whim. What’s more, there is no universal user experience to measure. Instead, it is a collection of every experience that every user had. It’s not an exact science by any means.
Creating a better user experience, therefore, is less about pleasing everyone and more about pleasing a larger percentage of people. When it comes to pictures, that means using photos that provide value to the greatest possible number of people.
Branding’s role in user experience
Photos are highly tied to branding; so, where do they fit in when it comes to user experience? The answer lies in the definition of a valuable user experience. Valuable experiences make users feel like they have not wasted their time. They feel like they have gained something from the interaction.
When someone is exposed to a brand – that is, a product or service that has an identity outside of the specific product or service being offered – they begin to develop expectations around what that brand is about. If you have a brand that relays a message of being fun and environmentally oriented, it would not be a good idea to use stock images of corporate professionals in an office with suits. It simply does not match, and the resulting experience would not be positive as a result.
When branding is done correctly, it encourages a deeper user experience; one that is more impactful and more likely to be valuable. Users may even seek out repeated experiences because of previous experience with the brand. However, when it is ignored, it leaves users confused and uncertain. Of course, when a website is not branded there will still be an experience, but it may not be one that users particularly remember. It also won’t be one that they value.
Creating valuable experiences
Photos can be used to create valuable user experiences, but to do so, it helps to understand what users find valuable. Generally speaking, a valuable experience is:
- Easy to have
- Easy to discover
- Based on truth
These qualities correlate with website usability, usefulness, accessibility, and credibility. It is very easy to create useful and accessible experiences with photos; however, it’s also easy to do it the wrong way. When you create websites with photos that are not relevant to the brand, or when you use images that portray other sentiments (because they are already so popular) you can easily create a non-credible user experience, simply because the photos are not relevant.
Images and usability
Besides ensuring that a photo matches the brand, websites should also be concerned about a photo’s usability. When it is difficult for a user to have an experience they often become frustrated and leave. This includes waiting for a picture to load. Some common pitfalls to avoid when it comes to images on your website include:
- Using too many photos
- Using the wrong format for your image type
- Ignoring high-resolution screens
Even if you start with a stock photo, images still need to be formatted correctly for your users, or their experience may suffer. For more on image optimization, read this Google Developer’s article.
Poor photos can mean many things. It may mean a photo that doesn’t match the brand. It may mean a photo that does not load quickly. It may mean a photo with low resolution. If your photos can be considered poor for any of these reasons, they do not belong on your website.