Functionality Vs. Aesthetics: Photos as Web Content

With the advent of websites like Instagram and the success of it, it is getting more apparent that users like images. Most People don’t want to just see blocks of text on the screen. These images while visually stimulating can also be ignored by users. It can be ignored when it looks like and advert or when it looks too inconsequential, for example, people will look at background images for like one second before looking to see other images that are relevant to what they want. Jakob Nielsen, on  November 1, 2010 wrote an article on Photos as Web Content. Nielsen holds 79 United States patents, mainly on ways of making the Internet easier to use. He holds a Ph.D  and is a co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g).  The NN/g is a website that researches user experiences on websites. So, Nielsen is very qualified and is a good position to give advice on web usability. His article posits that users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to “jazz up” Web pages. As a user of the web, my experience has also been in teaching with his position. He explores certain websites and how productive their images are. Do they give the reader productive and relevant information or do they just exist so to make the page look better?

Nielsen’s articles details results on eyetracking research that he put together. His results showed him that;

  • Some types of pictures are completely ignored. This is typically the case for big feel-good images that are purely decorative.
  • Other types of pictures are treated as important content and scrutinized. Photos of products and real people (as opposed to stock photos of models) often fall into this category.

He uses a set of pictures to drive home his point.


As you will note in the picture above, there is a long list of pictures with paragraphs and names. This picture is a list of all the people who work at a particular company. This list is obviously not to jazz up the page. It doesn’t serve an aesthetic purpose, it serves a functional one. This long list is there so that consumers can have a sense of who they are talking to and connect to them. It is not the feel good photo of people just sitting down posted on the website with no considerate value. It is important to the user.

Take a look at this picture below.


The people in that picture are obviously not relevant. That page is the Yale page of admission, as Nielsen continues, it has no relevance to the admission page. The purpose of the page is to help people through the admission purpose not show them the high life of the people currently admitted into the school. What does that picture say? It says to me, look at me we are wearing clothes and on a computer. I think to it, “so?”. Not useful.

Nielsen goes on to show the particular merits of having individual pictures in e-commerce sites. It is important to show relevant information pertaining to products in a manner that tells the user that this is why this content is important. He also goes on to show the merits of having large images when requested. When you go on e-commerce sites, you don’t want the image too big unless you request it to be so. maybe you want to see different angles in which the beautiful shoe you are trying to purchase looks. That’s when you should show big images not anytime before.

Nielsen’s article is clear in that it shows the various images and the do’s and don’ts that accompany them. He is very persuasive but since this article was written in 2010, it doesn’t exactly explore manners in which their uses have changed.

Today, images can be gateways to content rather thanjust accompaniments. At the Healthcare website, it is very evident. This is the first page of the website.


The four Icons that are shown in the image, the phone, the computer, the notepad  and a network of people are links to different places. Although there is content on the page, it is evident that those icons dominate the page. When a person goes to the page, the image immediately arrests the gaze, it provides information. It says to the user, click me and make things easier for yourself. Ignore all that other garbage, I’m here. Pictures have undergone a little bit of evolution and have gone from fluff and accompaniment to relevant and clickable web content.


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