Shutterstock User Interface Woes

I am the director of a small software company.  As anybody who has ever managed a small company knows, this puts a thousand different tasks in your ken.   Sometimes, my tasks involve coming up with design or advertising ideas, and, so, being pressed for time, Google Image Search (GIS) is often my first port of call for some image snippet or another.  While using GIS, however, more often than not I'd run into some nice images from ShutterStock which were justifiably watermarked, but Shutterstock's premium pricing had kept me from ever signing up... until recently, when I discovered that they had a "download x images per day for y days" subscription available at a price, which, while not cheap and certainly more expensive than a few of their low-rent competitors that I had used before, seemed to fit our budget, especially as our needs are mostly in the sphere of "build up a bank of images that we can use for inspiration for other things."  So, with visions of finally getting access to the "premium" shutterstock images that I had so long lusted after during my GIS use, I took the plunge.

Sign-up was more or less straightforward, though as I was not in my home country at the time of signup, I noticed that the shutterstock page would not let me access my "home" country pricing.  Rather, the subscription prices vary quite a bit depending on what country you view their pages from.  I called their call center to ask about this (since I wanted to place the order in my native currency as if I were in my home country) and they told me that would be no problem.  Then, I called back a few hours later to actually sign up, and the operator told me that they have no such policy and that there is no way that anybody offered me this and that I happened to be speaking to a supervisor and might I please tell him the name of the person I spoke to before so that he could presumably give her a reprimand.  Odd.

Anyway, I decided to just sign up online at the 'foreign' rate and got to work.  Now, this is how I expect such a premium service to work:

1.  I browse around using their search feature and add items to various "lighboxes" that I have created for my personal orgnaizations.

2.  After the end of a bit of browsing, I go to my lightboxes, select the imagest that I want to download and click "download".  Or, I go through one by one and download them manually, with a clear and obvious way to either delete them from the lightbox after downloading or marking it "downloaded" so that I can see what I have downloaded and avoid downloading duplicates.

This is how the two competing services that I had used prior to "premium" Shutterstock worked.  It would take maybe 5 minuets per day to download 25 or 30 images from my lightboxes.  Simple and easy, right?

Well, this is NOT how Shutterstock works, as I found out.

Rather, Shutterstock thinks that because I paid only $250 for a subscription account, that I am some sort of beggar whose time is worth nothing, and I should be treated as such.  This is not just my personal view of my experience - this is what Shutterstock actually basically told me in a phone call, as I will expand upon after first telling you the basic problem of their interface.

Ok - so here how things go at Shutterstock.  Adding images to my personal lightboxes is pretty much straightforward.  It's actually even pretty good - creating and managing the lightboxes is pretty good, though on the lightbox screens themselves, the link for the unlikely-to-be-used "Remove (entire lightbox)" is much more prominent than the link for "Delete (selected images)" which tripped me up once.

The problems begin when you go to download each image.  In my subscription plan, I have 25 per day.   I click on an image in my lightbox and then, after a few seconds, get taken to a page where I have a choice of image sizes down download.  Natually, I choose the largest (who chooses anything but, given that they cost the same, at least in this "per day" plan?).  After a few more seconds, I get a captcha to type in.  Ok, I type that in and then get taken to another intermediate screen and then to a screen which says "Your Download Is Now Starting" or something like this.  I have to carefully watch my browser's download indicator to see when the image download has actually started or otherwise due to the way its designed it's really easy to accidentally leave the screen without actually downloading.

To Shutterstock's credit, once an image is actually downloading, their download servers are quite fast.

Ok, with the image downloaded, where to next?  Perhaps a "remove this image from your lightbox and return to your lightbox?"  or, perhaps even a "return to your lightbox?"   Oh no there is none of that.  Rather, you are stuck in a kind of wasteland.  Occasionally, a "return to search results" shows up if you happened to have enterd this page from search, but otherwise it literally dumps you in the middle of nowhere, with either a multi-step cliickng on "my account" to get back to where you started or some awkward and pause-filled clicking of the browser's back button to achieve the same.

And what image did you just download?  I hope you remembered, because after that delay of getting back to your lightbox, now you have to manually find the image again (not an easy task if you are downloading many similar images or if you are just trying to download many images in a row and your mind wanders), select it, click on remove, and confirm. 

So, about 1 or 2 minutes later, you have downloaded your image, right?  Well, no.   Many of the images you will want to have downloaded are "super sized" images.  Once you click on "download" for those, you are told that they are being "generated" (presumably being moved from storage to some download server).   So, once you have reached your daily quota, you have to find the page to download these super-sized images (the link to return to the page to download these is far from obvious).  Here, you have to go image by image and download these super-sized images.  Again, the warning about needing to check your browser's download window to ensure the download has started is particularly acute, as it takes quite some time for some of the downloads to actually begin--a problem compounded by the fact that you may have other images downloading at the same time.  After downloading one of your supersized images, you return to the supersized list (which has not visibly chanegd, and keeping track of what you have or have not downloaded is annoyingly difficult as it is monotonous and error prone) and repeat.   But here you find that actually Shutterstock does remember what you downloaded - by way of if you click on a download link that you already did before that session, it will appear to do something but not actually proceed to the download page.  This is sort of helpful-ish were it not for the fact that a certain percentage of the downloads fail entirely (in firefox, i get a message of "Firefox does not know how to handle the protocol: FAIL", caused by the image URL being replaced by an internal engineering fail message generated by their own servers being unable to copy from archive or something like this).    This makes the image in question effectively impossible to download (well, without exiting the session, trying from another PC, etc) despite that it has been "paid for."

In short, the process is infuriatingly slow and awkward.  It takes about half an hour to an hour to download 25 images and to remove them from the lightboxes.  Every day.  Every day they ask for a CATPCHA to be filled in for every image.  Over the course of my "one month" subscription (oddly, 30 days in a 31 day month), this means 750 captchas even though I am already logged in to my secure account.  If I had a 1 year subscription, this would be 9125 pointless captchas and at least 9125 minutes (and probably double or triple that) wasted on a task that should take perhaps 5 minutes per day on this "premium" service.

So, the question is why.  Why is Shutterstock's user experience so terrible?

Naively, after downloading my first few images,  I called Shutterstock to see if I was doing something wrong.  This is what I was told:

1.  there is no easy lightbox management and they have no desire to program it.  it is up to me to keep track of file names such as "ShutterStock_9525236.jpg" while using their website to make sure I don't download duplicates. 

2.  The endless infuriating Captchas are somehow there for "my benefit" for "making sure that if somebody breaks into my account that..." and from their their logic became so convoluded that it was impossible to follow.  Obviously, the captchas are there for their benefit in order to frustrate users into actually downloading the images that they have paid to access (this is also the reason for not wanting to improve their interface into turning the 30+ minute daily process into the 3-5 minutes that it should be and in fact is on other sites).

Additionally, I was told:

3.  It's difficult because I chose a lower priced plan, and should be happy to have any access to those images given the low price I paid.

I enquired about cancelling my subscription then.  They asked me if I had downloaded any images.  I answered that of course I had, otherwise I would not have been able to find out just how awful their user interface is.  I was then told that because I had already downloaded some images, that my subscription was non cancellable.

Shutterstock obviously views its customers, or at least its customers who purchase their expensive but not as expensive as they might like them to be plans as their enemies.  By their own admission, they make their user experience deliberately difficult and time consuming, and to top it off, it's buggy at times as evidenced by the "fail" message that I have gotten on multiple "supersize" images.

Now, I'm fairly "lucky" - I can share this unnecessary download donkey work with my web designer.  That is to say, I can pay him for an hour or so of mind numbing and completely unnecessarily donkey work that Shutterstock has artificially created.   So, I guess I should have tacked on a few hundred extra bucks onto the price of that subscription and figured that into the cost of their subscription.

Needless to say, we are not happy with Shutterstock.  If they treated us like adults, we'd be happy to use them often.  The user experience they provide, however, makes it clear that they are not interested in us or our money, and, unless pressed, we're happy to look elsewhere in the future.

I am not associated with any competitor or related company in any way.  This is an independent review by an actual customer who has been dissatisfied with Shutterstock's Customer Service and user exeperience. Your experience may vary. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 3
By MarkOneDesign (Oct 23, 2012)

My sympathies Mark - the lack of a batch download really cheeses me off too.

It's OK if I'm working on concepts, thinking time is always in short supply...

BUT when creating mood boards etc the repeated single download process sucks.

Cannot say the different pricing is great too - US $ = UK £ (approx) which is a tad steep for a UK customer - what's the excuse for that then!

Any recommendations for better libraries?

Dennis Gallagher
By Dennis Gallagher (Mar 20, 2012)

Mark, we at Shutterstock recognize that our customers are our top priority and we take your comments and views seriously. I reached out to you on Mon 3/19 and would love to speak with you to see how we might be able to improve your experience with Shutterstock. Please give me a call or email me. Thank you.

Dennis Gallagher
Director of Customer Service
Shutterstock Images LLC

By amansker (2 months ago)

I just signed up for the 30 day deal at $249 and became quite frustrated very quickly for all the same reasons pointed out in the first post - 2 years ago. Wow. Can't help but think it is entirely intentional to force me to jump through all those hoops, and entering a four digit code for EVERY image I download. Better plan on 30 minutes to download the 25 images each day.

Total comments: 3