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.