Exploring the art of online persuasion through design

Andrew Baulcomb, Advancement Officer | Hamilton | March 16, 2016
Milena Head, Professor, Information Systems, DeGroote School of Business; Dianne Cyr, Professor, Management and Information Systems,Simon Fraser University

From left: Milena Head, Professor, Information Systems, DeGroote School of Business; Dianne Cyr, Professor, Management and Information Systems, Simon Fraser University

How important is website design when it comes to influencing public opinion on the Internet?

Marshall McLuhan was right. The medium really is the message.

DeGroote Professor Milena Head and a team of international researchers have found that, in addition to argument quality, the look and feel of a website can have a profound impact on winning hearts and minds.

For online readers with little or no understanding of a given issue, factors such as image appeal, navigation design and connectedness can make a world of difference when it comes to delivering key messages to mass audiences. Even relatively subtle design elements have the power to affect great change.

“For those who don’t have prior knowledge on a topic, it’s not just what is being said that is important,” offers Head. “How it is being said is also very important in shifting attitudes.”

The research team – which included Dianne Cyr from Simon Fraser University, Eric Lim from the University of South Wales and Agnis Stibe from MIT Media Lab – studied 390 participants from the United States and Canada.

Participants were asked to view the website for Keystone XL, which was chosen due to its clean aesthetic and “human-focused design,” Head explains.

The timing was also perfect. During the course of the study, cross-border debate surrounding Phase IV of the oil transportation pipeline was in full swing, with politicians and pundits on both sides of the border weighing in.

“We needed an issue that had some level of controversy without extreme polarization,” says Head, citing issues such as abortion, drug legalization and human cloning as too antagonistic for a preliminary study.

“We deemed [Keystone XL] to be a suitable topic that had some level of relevance and awareness among our target population, as well as being receptive to attitude and issue involvement change,” she explains.

Overwhelmingly, those with little prior knowledge were found to have been influenced more by the website’s design than those that had more prior knowledge on the topic. Those that had high prior knowledge of the Keystone XL project were more heavily influenced by the actual quality of the arguments made on the website, rather than its design.

Previously, the so-called “IT artifact” – for example, a technological interface such as a website – was assumed to be neutral in its power to change opinions, Head says. Technology was designed to serve the needs of users, and research was often geared toward simply making the technology easier to use.

However, researchers are quickly realizing that technology itself can have the power to reinforce, change or shape attitudes.

While the team acknowledges the limitations of the study [only one website was used], the implications are far-reaching. Politicians, government agencies, NGOs, lobbyists and charities all have something to gain by tapping into the power of online design.

“This research is relevant to anyone who uses websites as a means of communication, and who has the goal of changing user behaviours or attitudes,” says Head. “Our findings illustrate the potential power that design can have in creating a sense of involvement with an issue.”

On the strength of their work, Head and her colleagues received the “Best Paper” award at the 2015 Pre-ICIS Workshop on HCI Research in MIS, which is one of the top international venues for presenting human-computer interaction research.

The workshop and its affiliated conference the International Conference on Information Systems – were held in Texas last December, and drew more than 1,000 academics and professionals working in information systems from around the world.

The research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

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For media inquiries, please contact:

Andrew Baulcomb, Communications Officer
DeGroote School of Business
McMaster University
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