Dianne Cyr, professor, SFU Beedie School of Business


Website design potentially as influential as the message: study

November 09, 2016

New research reveals a website’s design may be just as influential as its messaging, according to a new study from Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

The study found that the quality of  a website’s images, and the extent to which the website facilitated connectedness could influence certain user groups’ opinions about the site’s topic.

The findings, says SFU Beedie professor Dianne Cyr, “could have significant implications for sites related to politics, charity, sustainability or e-commerce.”

The researchers’ paper, “The Art of Online Persuasion through Design: The Role of Issue Involvement as it Influences Users based on Prior Knowledge”, won the Best Paper award at the 2015 International Conference on Information Systems Workshop on HCI Research in MIS.  It is one of the top international venues for presenting human-computer interaction research.

The paper was co-authored by researchers Dianne Cyr, professor, SFU Beedie School of Business; Milena Head, McMaster University; Eric Lim, University of South Wales; and Agnes Stibe, MIT.

For their study, the researchers asked 390 volunteers to complete a survey about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project’s website design. The survey also queried their knowledge of the project prior to visiting the site.

The researchers selected the website both for its design, and for the level of controversy and notoriety its subject matter had already generated.

They evaluated three factors concerning the website’s design: image appeal, website navigation, and connectedness—how much other visitors provided opinions about the site’s subject matter.

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

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

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

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