A couple of weeks ago, a late-night conversation with one of the readers of this blog led to a discussion about the use of stock photos and their contribution (or lack of thereof) towards improving the overall user experience of a site. Much has been said in blogs and online discussions that stock photos and other decorative graphic elements do not add anything significant to the user experience.
Although this argument is even backed up by eyetracking studies, I felt the need, more than ever, to reach out to see if there is another side to this argument. So I browsed around in my LinkedIn contacts and found someone who can potentially provide this perspective – Robyn Lange.
Enter Robyn Lange – Curator of Stock Photos
Robyn is the curator of stock photos at Shutterstock, which as most of you know, is a global technology company that is one of the largest two-sided marketplace for creative professionals to license content. Previously, Robyn served as a photo editor for top national publications. She has worked closely with some of the most talented photographers in the industry; produced elaborate photo shoots across the globe; and cultivated extensive knowledge of image libraries both rare and internationally acclaimed.
I reached out to Robyn and asked her a number of questions whose topic ranges from the curation of stock photos to user experience principles.
1. Hi Robyn, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Can you start off by telling us about yourself?
Hi Justin, thank you for this opportunity. Well, I worked previously for over a decade as a freelance photo editor and producer in magazine publishing. I love both photography and design. I’ve marveled at how much more essential and widespread photography has become in all kinds of places to help businesses look better.
2. So you currently occupy the post of curator of stock photos with a leading supplier of stock photography. How did you fall into this line of work?
When I came across the job posting for a curator, I was immediately intrigued. Photo editing and curating have a lot in common. I knew that in this role I could take what I knew already, but apply it in new ways. One of the aspects of the job that got me most excited was the thought of making a suggestion that could be implemented and changed quickly.
3. What does your role involve and how does it differ from the ‘traditional’ position of curator in a museum or art gallery?
It’s my job to make the visitor’s experience as pleasant and memorable as possible. That’s true across platforms for all curators. Having 60 million assets (including photos, vectors and illustrations) at my disposal gives me a great resource to pull from. Working for a digital company, it’s incredibly interesting to test different photos and to see what the public clicks on more than others. You learn a lot throughout the process about what attracts an audience and in which context.
4. How would you describe the typical categories of customers?
We service 1.3 million customers and the most typical are in the fields of marketing, advertising and media.
5. Acquiring collections is a very important part of curation. How do you reach out to contributors of stock photos in order to raise the quality of the photos that you offer?
I don’t reach out personally, but we have a contributor team that reviews every single image and provides immediate and insightful feedback on the work. The team also reaches out to contributors to communicate opportunities based on what clients are asking for in a given season.
6. So what makes a good, high quality stock photo that users would want to buy?
Authenticity. Our best contributors have a certain style and vision that gets conveyed through their work. Clients sometimes don’t know what exactly they’re looking for, and a strong image that tells a story itself and conjures up emotions for the viewer can really make an impact. If the client feels something when he or she searches the collection, chances are so will the audience seeing that image inside a larger product. The photographers who perform best think from the beginning about the end use, and how and why this image would valuable to have.
7. In traditional curation, the art gallery curator would select the theme for exhibits. How does this transpire in the digital world of tagging stock photos into categories?
Keywords are integral to finding what you look for. It helps organize the imagery. But I’ve found them to be useful in other ways, too. What I’ll do is search an idea or a theme and then look at the similar keywords that turn up with them. A lot of the time the term I searched initially won’t be the term I wind up using to find what I really want. There’s a path to follow.
I’m selecting the best images from the bunch, but through doing searches myself, I get a good, strong look at the experience a customer would have as he or she searches. Replicating the user experience, and acting like a customer would, helps me better understand the customer, and how I can assist them.
8. I have read that one of the requirements for becoming a job curator for stock photography is to have a “knack for storytelling”. How does storytelling fit in your role?
When I choose imagery for our website, Instagram account, or for other marketing campaigns, I am doing my part to tell the Shutterstock story. At the same time, though, the beauty and authenticity you see can be had by anyone on a budget. We’re leading by example every day. If people who haven’t come across Shutterstock before are introduced to it with something bold and vibrant, then they’re more likely to think highly of the company and our collection. Every campaign or social-media post is a small piece of the overall story.
9. There was also mention that your role involves working closely with the User Experience design team by suggesting how the website should look and feel like. What measures could be taken to improve the user experience of a stock photography website?
It’s really important to have clean, uncluttered imagery that reads well on a number of platforms, whether web, mobile, or somewhere else. It should enhance the experience, but it should also stimulate the imagination. I love to experiment with different types of photos and vectors to use as our hero images (the large images at the top of the homepage), and it can be really surprising and exciting to see what content works.
And I think the same rules apply to stock sites as to magazine pages – less is more. Lots of little images make less of an impact than a few really gorgeous ones.
10. There is a considerable number of user experience professionals who advise against the use of stock photography of ‘generic people’ because users ignore them. In some cases, this is even backed up by research such as the eye tracking results presented by Dr. Jakob Nielsen in his article “Photos as Web Content”. What is your view on this argument?
This is a fascinating read; thank you for sharing. And I couldn’t agree more with the UX pros. Humans are so adept at reading social cues on a subconscious level that it’s very easy to spot the false scenarios. For that reason, it’s difficult for people to relate to such staged imagery.
I recently curated our Changing Faces infographic, and the premise of it was to show that customers are searching for faces that better represent our diverse world. It’s a wonderful celebration of the real and authentic people within our collection and a testament that we all still desire to make a natural, human connection with one another.
Thank you Robyn accepting my invitation for this interview and for dedicating your time to share with us these great insights. May I take this opportunity to wish you success for your new role.