Usability of Web Photos

Not all images are created equal. Anyone who has spent any amount of time searching stock image sites for the perfect image for a client knows that fact all too well.

Tight budgets and even tighter turnaround times for web projects cause us to grab the best we can and move on, hoping the client is content with the grab-bag of stock imagery we’ve pulled together in a pinch.

James Chudley’s book, Usability of Web Photos, sets out to fix the problem of bad stock imagery by teaching us how to evaluate imagery in terms of usability, not just pure aesthetic.

Often photos are overused within visual design. It is all too easy to make a template look more appealing by adding a photo when it would be more effective without one.

Chudley points out that “[p]eople don’t like photos that look staged or contain people doing things that they wouldn’t usually do in real life.” Images have to help the user in some way; whether that be through highlighting the product (or feature of the product), allowing the viewer to see the product in action, providing an emotional connection, etc.

Often stock photos are used to illustrate personas because they are cheap and easy to source. Stock photos typically contain people who are posing within artificial environments. They don’t look credible or believable. This makes the resulting persona profile hard to empathise with and thus defeats the point of using them.

The book is a quick read, coming in at a whopping 61 pages; I read through it in under half an hour, yet still managed to absorb some wonderful points along the way. As someone who studied photography for four years in university, the concepts laid out in the book left me constantly nodding my head in agreement. While I didn’t learn anything new, the book certainly proved to be a wonderful refresher, and Chudley manages to succinctly explain to the reader what I often struggle to explain to my students’ as they begin designing: what makes a good photograph.

The principles set out in this book apply equally for print as they do for design, despite the fact that it is geared towards a web centric audience.