The Psychology of Imagery

image of a stack of pancakesIf like me, you are ‘getting on a bit’… you will remember a time way before the Internet, online shopping, video surveillance on every street corner and the predominance of social media. Back then, attention spans were vastly longer than today, because there was less visual stimuli, less data to assimilate, less demand on our waking hours.

If you keep abreast of the latest research, you’ll know the influence of social media especially is making everyone less focussed, more data hungry and less able to tolerate any piece of information which isn’t immediately understandable.

Research from 2015 suggests that attention spans have dropped severely over the past 25 years to around 9 seconds (some would say even this is being overly generous with the Twitter generation!) but despite later doubts being put on this research, there is no doubt we are all busier and tasked with more to cram into each waking hour.

Don’t forget, we’re not just talking about teenagers here – the vast array of information available to all of us constantly on the Web is re-writing and interfering with the capabilities of our brains, social media combined with smart phone usage being particularly influential in this respect.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, never more is this true than when trying to trade online in an age when every second has so many demands on our attention.

Which neatly brings me round to writing about website imagery and why every online retailer needs a clear understanding of the modern, ‘connected generation’ psyche to get the very best results.

The Data Hungry Generation

The average age of smartphone users is growing, we are all becoming increasingly data hungry . Even the traditional 55+ year purchasers of old who used to gravitate to a ‘bricks and mortar’ store are discovering and now heavily using online shopping. Online shopping and especially mobile eCommerce usage are driving shorter attention spans when shopping, not because people are getting less intelligent but precisely the opposite – everyone is waking up to the possibilities on online shopping and there is so much choice online it’s hard not to browse to find the best deal!

To effectively present to the core market in the giftware sector, you therefore must cater to the shorter attention spans generated by smartphone usage, using imagery and interactive content to keep attention on-page, inform in the most efficient way and combine this with tried and tested layouts to make sure users understand what you are offering.

Quality is Paramount

The type and quality of images are paramount in an online store. For a moment, remove yourself from the role of business owner and put yourself in the mind set of someone searching for a product online. Would you buy from a website which had poor image quality, or the sizes of the images didn’t allow detail to be seen?  If you’re answer is a resounding ‘No’ then you’re with the majority, but there are so many more effects imagery on websites have on us.

Higher value goods inherently have an emotional attachment when it comes to purchasing decisions and this is even more relevant when we’re talking about giftware and ornaments that have a real ‘wow’ factor. To give your eCommerce website the very best chance of converting a sale of these big ticket items, product imagery must be of the very highest quality and trigger the right responses from potential purchasers.

Nailing Down User ‘Intent’

Images on every page in the website must clearly convey what each page is focussed upon. Spurious detail and ‘marketing imagery’ which doesn’t directly sell the benefits and capabilities of the product should be minimised as this is just distracting from purchase decisions and robbing all of that valuable, short-lived attention span!

As an example of this, T Mobile used to employ images of Catherine Zeta Jones using one of their phones. This, you would think, is a great marketing ploy. Catherine Zeta Jones has, after all, one of the most instantly recognisable faces on the Planet and as we live in a World obsessed by celebrity this seems like a sensible marketing decision.  Users of the T Mobile website however were exasperated – having a beautiful face on the page did nothing to show the capabilities of the phone or give any useful information on the phone’s suitability for users.  .

In this case, the designers of the website imagery didn’t factor in the intent or psyche of website users, who just wanted to see detailed images of phones to make a purchasing decision.

Go to the T Mobile site today and you will see big, clear images of phones even on the homepage, with fast, easily digestible information on all the products available. No opportunity is missed to grab attention and to convert a browser into a purchaser, which is how every retail website should be.

When to Avoid Stock Imagery

Stock imagery can be useful in the design of a website, however it’s use can seriously detract from the message that you are trying to get across to a website user, especially on product and category pages in an eCommerce website.

For maximum conversions, stick to clear, detailed product images which are ‘zoom-able’, product videos and 360-degree imagery to give the maximum impact for users and keep attention at optimum levels, this pays massive dividends when it comes to persuading people to click on that all important ‘add to basket’ button!

The subject of using pictures of people in websites is a very contentions subject and one which requires a lot of thinking about to get best effect.

The effect here of the correct imagery can be massively positive and the use of the wrong imagery catastrophic, so beware.

Online retail websites rely so much on trust to promote purchase that stock imagery can have a damaging effect here – put yourself in the shoes of your purchaser and think if you would trust a business which hasn’t made the effort to try and engage with its customers, using stock images where high quality, unique, believable images would have worked so much better.

If you really have to include photos of people in your website then keep these to unique shots showing functional use of the products and think about including pictures of staff so that website users know they are dealing with real people, this can be massively reassuring, will keep attention on the page if done correctly and can sell more of your products than a picture of Catherine Zeta Jones ever will!


David Fairhurst

Head of Creative Online Marketing

Intelligent Retail

David has been involved with Search Engine Optimisation and web development since 1999 and has spoken at many different retail and SEO conferences including Spring Fair and SES London


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