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More and more we are used to slick mobile websites that focus on functionality above all else, and quite right, too.

Arguably when we visit web entities we have less patience than ever before.

Certain generations are starting to build up some serious hours of learning online, navigating websites, social networking and getting stuff done. These users are developing an innate understanding of web design, even if subconscious.

What this means is that the online world is fast finding its own feet, its design conventions, when viewed as a channel for interaction and productivity, not just information dissemination. It's no longer apeing traditional media. Just take a look at Google's Material Design.

So, I'm going out on a limb to say this means photography is becoming rarer online. Here are some examples of why and where.

Some examples

Government Digital Services - NHS organ donation register

I saw this case study referred to in a briefing by the agency Reading Room, where digital psychology was discussed.

This is a pretty straightforward set of A/B tests, looking at conversion of page visitors (in this case, the tax disc ‘Thank You’ page) to organ donation registrants. How would this conversion change as the page design was tinkered with?

You can see the tests, 1 VS. 2 etc, below. The tests look at copy and imagery.

gds a/b tests

gds a/b tests 

Below you can see the results of the A/B tests. The people photo scored lowest.

Before you say 'this doesn't prove that photography as a whole is a bad thing', I agree that context is all. On this page, perhaps visitors saw this stock image as an advert, or it distracted from the organ donor message (the most successful of which, hence the topic of psychology, was the use of reciprocity i.e. reminding users they might one day need an organ, too).

However, I'm using it here as evidence that users are beginning to trust clean, spare and functional experiences over 'real world' imagery.

See the full GDS blog post here.

ab test results gds

Virgin America's new website

I reviewed this remarkable new website on the Econsultancy blog.

It wasn't until afterwards that I realised how light on photography the site is. The only place photos are used is to demonstrate the various standards of cabin.

Elsewhere it's all logos, icons, avatars, illustrations and even gifs.

It works because the aim of most customers on this website is to perform an action - to book a flight or to check in. It's not a marketing site. Photography would distract from the sense that the entire site is about efficient information input and no fuss action.

virgin america website 

virgin america site

virgin america website

Go and take a look at the website.

Here are two snapshots, one from Virgin America and one from the BA website. I think it illustrates the point.

virgin america website

ba website

Some thoughts 

With increased web usage, in fact increased media consuption overall, people are warier than ever of the out-and-out salesman or the black box.

We like web interactions that 'feel' right. We're less easily tricked by women laughing alone with salad (see the header image).

Essentially, psychology is still avery important part of digital, but for extended and repeat usage of a service, reliability and fewest hurdles are prioritised. This is why Amazon is so successful. The so called clunks of web design that let the user know they are advancing through a process or have done something correctly.

What it comes down to is the concept of the 'uncanny valley'. We want non-human entities like websites and virtual assistants to feel familiar in some ways, it makes us like them more. But if they go too far away in imitating a human being, we are creeped out and turned off.

Some caveats and conclusion

Photography is still important, of course. Product images, reassuring pictures of real people when marketing and information is being relayed, where the customer is being educated.

Photography is increasingly being used more as wallpaper, as backdrop to text and the mechanics of a site.

The functional side of the web is only going to grow as mobile penetrates further and dashboards become more important in our lives.

With our discomfort in the uncanny valley, I think it's quite promising that gone are the ideas of a walking, talking robot butler. Here are the ideas of beautifully designed interfaces and consistent visual languages.

I am not a UX practitioner or a web designer, so I expect a backlash from testers and techies. But I thought I'd ask the question first.

Ben Davis

Published 10 July, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

723 more posts from this author

Comments (10)

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Ryan

Top work

almost 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

Great article, but why is there a generic stock photo at top left?

Putting the snark aside, I mostly agree. And If this means less clip-art/stock photography, then I'd be delighted, because it's actively annoying to see the same kind of stuff everywhere.

But I think people still want photo content - see any clothing fashion brand for an example - just not boring and irrelevant photography.

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

@Pete

That photo is from one of the best Tumblrs around http://womenlaughingalonewithsalad.tumblr.com/

:)

almost 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

Caught the "women laughing alone with salad (see the header image)" reference on my second read-through. D'Oh!

http://womenlaughingalonewithsalad.tumblr.com/

almost 2 years ago

Rob Mettler

Rob Mettler, Director of Digital Business at PA Consulting

For me it's all about the use, role and quality of the photography. One of my observations using the new Guardian mobile app is its tremendous use of high quality photography, they have chosen excellent rich images and also present portfolios (on my unfashionably small iPhone 4S screen) in an incredibility compelling way.

So although it's a different context of use to other commercial sites and apps it shows that quality photography can still have a vital role to play regardless of device and channel.

Finally for transparency I'm a digital head as well as a passionate photographer!

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

almost 2 years ago

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Pawas Gupta, Search Marketing Consultant at NCMborz

Recently Google removed authorship pictures from its search results. Some say, they did it because they wanted to deliver search results fast to mobile searchers on devices with slower internet connections. Can this be true?

almost 2 years ago

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Nick Walters

Agree totally about use utility and icons to assist with function.

Disagree with the interpretation that #3 performed poorly purely due to the cheesy group shot. Equally if not more culpable would be the line "thousands of people decide to register..." that was used on this and #2.

Strikes me as negative social proof that could impact response. IE "well if thousands of others are doing it then it's not so impactful if I don't".

As an aside, any chance you could get the CAPTCHA challenges somewhat legible? Maybe it's my age and eyesight but it's taken three attempts so far...

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

@Nick

Yeah, it's a bit hard to unpick the why from those results. The picture might simply have distracted people from reading the text.

I'll see what we can do about CAPTCHA - I agree.

almost 2 years ago

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MOrces

Hi

Very nice explanation,but i think use of pics varies according to the type of product you want to sell .

almost 2 years ago

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