How Stock Photos Can Make or Break Your Users’ First Impression

July 12, 2016 Alexa Tuskey

The first time I baked a cake was for my family’s Christmas Eve party. I volunteered to make dessert, choosing a fancy Andes Mint Chocolate Cake recipe. How hard could it be? After all, I am a designer. Both baking and designing are skilled and methodical, yet creative outlets, and I had plenty of experience attempting the latest Pinterest recipes to unwind from a day of creative projects.

Feeling confident from the heavenly smells wafting from the oven, I took out my two perfectly-baked chocolate cake layers, waited for them to cool, and stacked them on my mother’s vintage cake plate. I began spreading recently-whipped homemade icing across the cake when disaster struck: the icing was terrible!

In my haste to concoct it before the cake layers cooled, the icing wasn’t mixed properly and, in turn, was too pasty. As I dragged the icing spreader across the cake, it pulled and tore at the cake layers in sad, jagged lumps. I panicked and tried to overcompensate, only making things worse. I was left with a sagging, lumpy mess of a cake.

I was determined not to show up empty handed, so there the cake sat on my grandmother’s counter, untouched. My family members tried not to look at it.

Fine, I grumbled. I’ll take the first piece.

I cut a soggy-looking piece and took a bite – delicious! Despite its appearance, it was an exceptionally well-baked cake with good intentions and a perfect structure. But no one wanted to touch it, and at the end of the night, 3/4ths of the cake ended up in the trash.

Unfortunately, in my line of work, I encounter many websites that are similar to my ill-fated pastry. Well-planned, exceptionally built … but one look at them and users scatter. Why?

Oftentimes, they’re using outdated, inappropriate, and/or irrelevant stock photography.

Stock photography is frequently an afterthought in a website build, usually because placeholders are stuck there like colorful post-it notes. Then, a week before launch, someone suddenly remembers that those placeholders aren’t real, and there’s a mad dash to find the cheapest and easiest photos to slap on the website.

Here’s the thing: your stock photos are part of the content. They are an important visual aid that helps your users digest information more quickly, which is increasingly important in a fast-paced digital world where hotspots and bounce rates matter.

They are also expressions of your brand’s tone, setting the mood for your site and for your users. Unless you have the budget for a custom photoshoot, you’re going to have to use a number of well-thought-out strategies to get the most out of your imagery and make your users feel excited to explore your site, instead of pretending not to see it cave in on itself on grandma’s counter.

So, how can you successfully choose the right stock imagery for your website?

Set yourself apart. You’ve seen that image of two businessmen shaking hands in front of a tall-columned bank building a hundred times before, so it should be perfect for your site, right?

Wrong.

Nothing alienates users more than images that don’t feel tailored to your particular brand. If, upon first glance, you and your competitor are using the same style of imagery, who’s to say that the average user will be able to tell you apart at all? You only have a few seconds to capture the attention of your users, so make it count.

Set yourself apart

Consider the tone of your brand. You’ve chosen a sophisticated, muted color palette, the right sans-serif font to convey elegance, and even redesigned your logo to reflect the years of dignified experience that you possess.

Unfortunately, the only thing your user sees before shaking her head and hitting the back button is that large, colorful image of a businesswoman watering a money-shaped plant that your neighbor’s uncle’s brother said “looked sharp."

Consider the tone of your brand

It may seem “creative,” but does it really match the tone of sophistication that you’re trying to convey with your brand? If the answer is no, pocket it for another occasion. Seek out images that tell your story, whether it is how the models are interacting with each other or their surroundings, the sharpness or softness of particular elements, or the use of certain colors.

Think naturally, as well. If you’re trying too hard, your users will pick up on it immediately, whether it’s the forced, unnatural smiles of two overdressed people or inanimate objects arranged in a way that you would never see in real life (like the shape of a dollar sign, perhaps).

Always be relevant. Nothing shouts, “I had no idea what to put here,” more than a random macro shot of cogwheel above a headline like “Our Years of Experience.” It’s not always easy to pinpoint what the best visual representation of a complex concept should be, but with enough research and diligence, you should be able to think of something that is representative of that particular section and reminiscent of your brand.

Read, and re-read, your written content. Write down immediate thoughts that come to mind, whether they’re reactions, emotions, or gut feelings. Dig deep, but don’t be overreaching. Yes, we’re all aware that puzzle pieces “connect” just like collaborating humans do, but that doesn’t mean your users aren’t going to roll their eyes at that.  ­

Always be relevant

Ideally, you and your creative team should come up with an imagery strategy early on in the website redesign process. This will guarantee that everything will have the same visual relevance and will influence the design of the rest of your pages as well. For the sake of the hard work and the money you invested creating a beautiful, high-end product, don’t frost your cake with the cheap, last-minute frosting. Give it the photo finish it deserves.

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Alexa Tuskey Front-End Designer & Developer

As a Front-End Designer & Developer at One North, Alexa creates innovative and engaging digital designs for clients and One North marketing materials through creative insight and cross-department collaboration. Alexa brings an open-mind, an unbeatable attention to detail and fearless creativity to her role at One North. She enjoys being able to help her clients tell their story by interpreting their vision and bringing it to life within functional and creative designs.

  • Fun fact: I did my senior thesis on the evolution of hip hop music.
  • What did you want to be when you were little: The President of the United States

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