A picture’s worth a thousand words, the old saying goes. Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen begs to differ. Only some pictures are worth a thousand words.
In his Alertbox release today, Nielsen take’s the position that eyetracking studies show that how users approach images on websites depends to a great degree on what the images depict. “Big feel-good images that are purely decorative” are ignored. Images that are felt to be important content are “scrutinized.” In this category he includes product shots and photos of real people. (Head shots of key employees, for example, rather than stock images of models.)
On the face of things, this seems pretty obvious and I’m sure the eyetracking studies are accurate. I even agree strongly with his assertion that despite the premium site developers and clients place on design, “users still prefer websites that focus on the information they want.”
But I’d love to find more information on eyetracking studies and how they account for peripheral vision. (Anyone have any resources they can recommend as reliable?)
It seems to me that the study ignores visual design’s ability to impact visitors’ attitudes toward the site. That attitude directly colors how a visitor will interact with a site and therefore the site’s usability, so the images that Nielsen says are pure filler would seem to have more value than he’s allowing, even if visitors aren’t focusing on them directly.
There’s no question that filler images on pure content pages are a distraction, particularly when they overshadow or replace valuable content images. (By pure content pages, I mean pages that might be found on a 2nd or 3rd level – product detail pages on a retail site, for example, where visitors want detailed descriptions of the product and the largest image they can find.)
But great design is still a key differentiator. Site designers should keep jazzing up websites – and be mindful that design is only effective if it serves usability and content needs.