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Something I've always wondered about is what effect would bad stock photography have on the user for sensitive subjects. I'm talking cheap, literal and cliche. I personally find this type of thing quite patronizing. Here's an example -

Financial assistance

This form is to sign up for emergency financial assistance (UK). The user has to select a circumstance. My concern as a designer using ones like the domestic violence one and the fire one might upset the user, and effect the performance of the user with the up coming forms.

The "I need to move home because my relationship with a partner...." one looks like it's just making fun of the subject because the photo is so awful.

What are your thoughts on using stock photography for sensitive subject matters? Do you think the user will react negatively?

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The world is made up of all sorts of different people. Some won't be bothered. Some will find the pictures distressing. And various degrees in between. By using stock imagery, it can only sway the curve in one direction - i.e. you will affect more people. If images are necessary, I'd use something more generic (but well considered), symbolic and more removed from the emotional scenes that are displayed here. If this is a real scenario, I'd strongly urge not using strong stock imagery - it's not like an insurance TV advert preying on emotions to force action. But I don't have evidence either... – Roger Attrill Oct 22 '12 at 12:18
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I agree, they look patronizing, but worse if they were good you might fear that it could cause mental anguish for the viewer. I'd say keep it abstract (iconographs) if you must have a picture, say in multi-lingual environments where you do not have a translator. Otherwise I'd simply use a nice reassuring gentle readable text.

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I tried to find studies to back my statements up, but I could only find ones relating to corporate use. That being said, there was a general trend of "Stock images can be impersonal" and "Stock images can communicate something that you didn't intend", I know in your environment you're dealing with much more sensitive customers. I genuinely hope you'll keep up the good fight and get these terrible photos taken down. – VoronoiPotato Oct 22 '12 at 13:00
The problem is Imagery is subjective and doesn't help when the subject themselves is personal & sensitive. Fortunately this isn't our offering and we are building something similar, so will avoid anything that could be taken the wrong way! – Wander Oct 22 '12 at 13:25
+1 for this because some of these images can actually be triggering for people who are survivors of abuse or violence. The last thing you want to do is trauma trigger someone who actually needs the information on your site. – Olivia Oct 23 '12 at 21:30
@Olivia Quite right - it doesn't matter if there's a million visitors and just one of them is affected adversely - that is one too many. – Roger Attrill Oct 23 '12 at 22:20

Unless you actually need to express something visually, you should probably avoid stock photos altogether; see UX Myths' Myth #8: Stock photos improve the users’ experience and our very own question UX impact of standard stock photos?

Generally speaking, stock photos are cheesy. They look cheap and prefabricated (because they are). They have little personality or human element about them (despite how happy those women look as they eat that salad). Sure, some stock photos are "better" than others, but the whole cliche is viewed negatively.

So if stock photos are bad in general (and I'd certainly agree they are), they're much worse in a sensitive context. They're not what you're looking for when you're looking for information on a sensitive topic; you're looking for information. Stick with words; visually distinct headers, distinct, logical groups will help users visually navigate the options, there's no need for the images at all.

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Yes, users will react negatively. Especially with the ridiculous couple dispute image. And, even without images, a user like me would react negatively to a business like this.

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