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A Picture or a 1000 Words? Use and Abuse of Visual Assets on Websites

The theme of this month’s issue is digital asset management, a technology that I know very little about. What I do know is that they help web managers manage photographs, videos and other graphic media assets, so let me offer some reflections on these.

Over the last few years the default screen size has increased quite substantially, giving more space to use for high-quality photographs. Now we are faced with decreasing screen sizes as we deliver to tablets (of various sizes) and smartphones.

Will it still be as important to fill the screen with images? I have great difficult trying to understand what sort of conversations go on behind the scene when decisions are made to enliven a website homepage with photographs.

On a Carousel

Let me take the University of Leeds, one of the largest universities in the UK, as an example. A substantial proportion of the home page is filled up by a carousel of five photographs and a black rectangle that is a video waiting to happen — if only you could see the start button.

The overlaid messages are good ones, but just what do the photographs add to the messages? Of the five, three could have been taken at almost any university in the world. Looking at the website on my iPad the carousel display takes up almost 50% of the screen and the video does not work because it needs a Flash player. In addition, the sheer screen weight of the photographs almost blinds the user to the top level navigation, and some important navigation is below the fold.

I’ve picked on Leeds because the carousel is a feature of most of the top-level pages of the site. Go on to this page and see how the inserted video (Flash again) has compromised the headings of the categorized list of news stories.

No. 56 of Jakob Nielsen’s Home Page Design Guidelines emphasizes the need for graphics to show real content, not just to decorate the homepage. Far too many web managers seem to feel that pictures make a home page look attractive, and never look at how many people arrive at their sites through Google and miss the photo gallery.

So just what is the point? I’m not suggesting that website pages should not have images and videos, but they must add value to the content on the page.

On the Desktop

Intranet home pages inevitably need to be more navigation-rich, so space is limited. So why do so many intranet news pages have a thumbnail photo next to each summary of a news item?

I remember some years ago that a news item on the (UK) Royal Mail intranet about new products had a photograph of a postman alongside, and another story about electric vans had (yes, you’ve guessed it) a picture of a postal delivery van.

Last year the intranet of one of the world’s most prestigious consulting companies had an item about meeting room booking wrapped around a picture of a meeting room. I was expecting to see a picture of a dollar bill on the finance system alongside each invoice!

Getting the Balance Right

The inappropriate use of photographs and videos has a number of implications. These include: 

  • The additional time taken to select an image, size it, admire it and click to publish.
  • The impact it may have on the optimal design of the page for reading or navigation.
  • The potential impact on access to the page using tablets and smartphones, especially when using responsive design.
  • Increased download time.
  • Increased browse time from visitors trying to work out the significance of the image.
  • The additional cost of managing the image collection.
  • The use of a CMS which is great at managing images but only at the cost of additional complexity for content authors, especially those not using the CMS on a regular basis.

Another, and somewhat sensitive issue I have come across in intranets is that the stock photographs on the corporate sections of the intranet reflect the culture of the HQ operation and not the international culture of the company. When I interviewed people in India almost the first comment was about the imposition of the corporate Western European images on their local homepage template.

The acid test is to take an image out and see if the message of the content is in any way diminished. Certainly web pages can benefit from the variety and impact that good photographs contribute. I often browse through the National Geographic site  over a cup of coffee just because of the stunning photo galleries. You might want to consider a short good-practice guide for your website and/or intranet about the effective use of photographs. It might save you the cost of a DAM application.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading:

About the Author

Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus Ltd. An information scientist by profession, he has been providing intranet and information management strategy consulting services for over a decade, and also advises on the selection of CMS and enterprise search applications. Martin has written two reports for the Intranet Benchmarking Forum on the use of SharePoint for intranet applications. He is also author of the The Intranet Management Handbook.

 
 
 
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