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It's pretty clear to me that standard stock images (examples 1 / examples 2) don't help to build a brand or identity. Are there any studies about the impact of stock images? Any other thoughts?

In case you are wondering: Our marketing division loves stock images and I try to keep them away from our GUIs.

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uxmyths.com/post/705397950/… –  CodesInChaos Nov 2 '11 at 16:38
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In general, they are space fillers. If a company wants images that are brand building, they need to have their brand on the images, and be sure they are their own images. –  Schroedingers Cat Nov 2 '11 at 16:40
    
That and they usually look cheesy and generic. –  Matt Rockwell Nov 2 '11 at 17:02
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As extremely subjective evidence, try and find a major, high quality web site that actually uses stock photos. They don't exist (twitter, Google, Facebook, Youtube). The only exceptions are sites aimed at businesses (some Microsoft sites), probably because poor business souls are so used to the marketing barf that is stock photos. –  Ben Brocka Nov 2 '11 at 21:05
    
CodelnChaos: Perfect, that's what I needed, you should post it as an answer! (and funny, I'm the one who usually posts links to uxmyths.com, missed that one ;)) –  Phil Nov 3 '11 at 8:01

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I've never thought about exactly WHY we hate stock photos, but I think it's related to the concept of the uncanny valley.

Most cheesy business-centric stock photos look almost real, but there's always just something that makes them clearly unnatural. Is it the perfect mix of skin colors amongst the group? Is it the fact that they seem WAY too happy to be typing on a keyboard or talking on the phone? Is it that they all shop at the same business-casual outfitters?

In other words, a lot stock photography is simply bland. Unless 'bland' is the brand message the company wants to communicate, it's best to avoid the stuff.

Custom photography is ideal, but, to be fair, there are good stock photography resources. However, they tend to cost a bit more and do require the talents of a graphic designer to use them properly.

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+1 for first mention I've seen on here of the uncanny valley! –  Roger Attrill Nov 2 '11 at 19:02
    
"We need some stock photos, round up the one black guy in the office, give everyone Valium and we'll take some pictures." –  Ben Brocka Nov 2 '11 at 19:34
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Great answer, I've just read the uncanny valley article, great stuff :) Unfortunately it's probably a bit too abstract for my purpose (convincing the marketing department). –  Phil Nov 3 '11 at 8:04
    
Uncanny Valley: I have experienced this at first hand playing with a stuffed toy and made it look a bit too real and it freaked my then girlfriend right out. –  colmcq Nov 3 '11 at 15:10

We tested at Intuit fairly extensively on the use of photos of people on the websites. In every case, the winner of the test was not a person, but a picture of the BOX, like the one you would get in the store.

Executives CONSTANTLY tried to get us to put in happy people and we kept saying, "It won't beat the box. The box is the champ."

The lesson is: People have a mental model of what they want and it is rarely a happy person. Show them what they picture in their head and you will get them to convert.

This answer is predicated on the idea that stock photos are almost always people.

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+1 for providing a tested alternative. Now, what I have been wondering is WHY higher-up people always seem to think that putting in pictures of inanely happy office workers is a good idea. –  LaundroMat Nov 3 '11 at 8:49
    
People are willing to pay more for things they can physically touch or see in person, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they're more willing to buy something they can at least SEE like it will appear. Stock photos aren't helpful for that purpose unless you're looking to purchase some unnaturally happy people. –  Ben Brocka Nov 3 '11 at 13:20
    
so most stock photos are really for ethnicallydiverseslavers.com? –  jk. Nov 3 '11 at 14:38

All of the above

Usability tests I have run the experience was once the user became familiar with page layouts (usually after 2-3 page visits and 5 minutes of testing) they quickly became frustrated with stock images "they push content down the page" "they say nothing useful" "they're not relevant".

What I'm trying to say, is that they suck.

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I believe it's a common sense among UX gurus that stock photos should be avoid (unless there is real need for them), but there are a huge gap between 'sense' and a fact. So, a good way for you to keep your Marketing people away from stocks photos, is showing to them that those photos don't work. A way to do that is making an A/B test.

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This link is to a study: "Photos as Web Content"

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/photo-content.html

The findings of which are: "Users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to "jazz up" Web pages."

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This could really do with a description in your answer rather than just a link. Not everyone knows that useit.com is Nielsons site (or even know who he is). This link is to a study: "Photos as Web Content", the findings of which are: "Summary: Users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to "jazz up" Web pages." –  JonW Nov 4 '11 at 9:55
    
It's UX.stackexchange.com, if you (not you in particular) don't know who Nielsen (Yes, that's spelled with an e), you (again, not you) didn't do your research. Plus, this guy was asking for a study, so I guess it shouldn't be voted -1. –  Wousser Nov 12 '11 at 16:15
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I partially agree. (The response has been updated to provide more detail since I left my original comment. The downvote came from someone else). It's a useful study to read so the comment wasn't worth a downvote, but could have done with more detailed description rather than just posting a link (as was originally the case). It's not just UX.SE site members that read the questions; questions appear in search engine results too so the more detail that can be provided in responses the better the information we can provide to these google / bing-referred visitors. –  JonW Nov 14 '11 at 9:00

Even though I am personally against the use of stock images and advocate for solid testing with users, I can see that there might be an argument for using them. This is the case when a particular stock image has been used so much that it becomes a recognized image for something. The best example I can think of is the picture of a woman with a headset that many sites use as their default support icon or link. Of course, there are other alternatives to this, but I think many first time visitors would instantly recognize this more than anything else. So in considering the difference between pleasing first time versus returning visitors, you do have to take into consideration what the motivation and rationale for using stock photos are in some of the arguments and testing used to justify their use on websites.

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