Website design potentially as influential as the message: study

Oct 25, 2016


Beedie School of Business professor Dianne Cyr.

Beedie School of Business professor Dianne Cyr.

The design of a website could be just as influential as the message it conveys, according to new research from Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

The study found that the quality of images and the extent to which the website facilitated connectedness could influence certain groups of users’ opinions on the subject.

The paper, “The Art of Online Persuasion through Design: The Role of Issue Involvement as it Influences Users based on Prior Knowledge”, was co-authored by professor Dianne Cyr, SFU’s Beedie School of Business; Milena Head, McMaster University; Eric Lim, University of South Wales; and Agnes Stibe, MIT.

The researchers asked 390 volunteers to complete a survey about the design of website for the Keystone XL pipeline project, and their knowledge of the topic prior to visiting the site.

The site was chosen both for its website design, and for the level of controversy and notoriety the subject matter had already generated.

The researchers evaluated three factors concerning the website’s design: image appeal; website navigation; and connectedness – when other visitors provide opinions about the subject matter on the site.

The results indicated that users who were less informed about a subject were more likely to have their opinion of the subject matter influenced by the website’s design.

Users who had pre-existing knowledge of the subject, however, could be influenced by the arguments made on the site, but were less likely to be influenced by the design.

“The idea of how to persuade online visitors has huge implications for a number of areas, such as politics, charity, sustainability, or e-commerce,” says Cyr.

“By taking into account the contributing factors when designing a website, it could be possible to influence visitors according to the site owners’ desire. By offering a platform for users to share their opinion, for example, users feel a sense of connectedness that makes it more convincing for them to go along with the topic of persuasion.”

The research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

The study won the “Best Paper” award at the 2015 International Conference on Information Systems Workshop on HCI Research in MIS, one of the top international venues for presenting human-computer interaction research.