Usability and Images

Been thinking about online communities a lot the last few days – specifically thinking about what makes a successful community, and the aesthetics of the online environment that the community flourishes in. Take Facebook – probably the most successful online community website going. Now, one can argue that Facebook’s design aesthetic is to get out of the way of the community’s relationships… but perhaps it’s not the design aesthetic at all. Maybe the aesthetic is irrelevant when the content is overwhelmingly useful to the end user. Previously, I and many other web designers had tried to ensure that if, as a designer, you wanted to build a website that encouraged community, that pictures of people should be there to enhance the connection users have to the site and to each other. Yesterday in a meeting I suggested that one “had to have pictures of people” in the header of a website, in that it helped humanize the experience. My hypothesis is that without those pictures, the experience becomes too sterile. The counter argument a colleague brought up was that a 2-D representation of a person does not mean that people feel more at home or in a community.

Then why do designers use pictures of people so often as a short cut to engage people? Is it because it’s easy and a cue to users that people (of a certain stripe) are welcome here? Anyone have any studies that have looked at images of people and the user’s effect?