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Issue № 397

Persuasion: Applying the Elaboration Likelihood Model to Design

by Published in Graphic Design, Web Strategy, User Research4 Comments

Persuasion is part of every aspect of our lives. Politicians want our vote, businesses want us to buy their products, and people want us to like them. Even altruistic nonprofits want us to change our behaviors around environmental issues and public safety, or give them our money to help fight hunger and disease (the nerve!).

This reality is no different for websites and other digital properties. Persuasion is a necessary component of good design, ensuring that users will engage with your product in the way you intended, leading to the outcome you intended.

Understanding persuasion will highlight the importance of developing strong messages, help you better incorporate and refine effective persuasive techniques into your design, and allow you to explain to others (potential clients, peers) how and why your design is effective at persuading users.

The really nice elephant in the room

Persuasion has a bad reputation—the word itself often evokes thoughts of being swindled or pressured to do something we really don’t want to do. But persuasion isn’t inherently negative—it’s just a process of influence, for better or worse. With some help from Richard Perloff’s The Dynamics of Persuasion, here are five ways of understanding persuasion:

  • Persuasion is communication. At its core, persuasion needs a strong, clear message sent from one party to another.
  • Persuasion is an attempt to influence. Understanding your audience and what makes them tick makes your attempt more likely to succeed—though the outcome is never guaranteed.
  • Persuasion involves more than words. Aesthetics, interactions, ease of use, and other factors can make a website or application more persuasive to potential users.
  • Persuasion is not coercion. It is up to individuals to form or change their own attitudes. Utilizing dark patterns or purposely tricking a user into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do is not persuasion. It’s being an asshole.
  • Persuasion can reinforce attitudes. Your audience has opinions that need to be strengthened from time to time. If you don’t preach to the choir, someone else will, and eventually your faithful followers will be led astray.

Academics have attempted to explain how persuasion works on individuals for decades. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986), one of the most frequently cited models of persuasion, explains how shaping attitudes also shapes behaviors. Incorporating the principles of the Elaboration Likelihood Model into your messages and design will maximize your influence on user attitudes and, therefore, behaviors. That, my friend, is what persuasion is all about.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model attempts to explain how attitudes are shaped, formed, and reinforced by persuasive arguments. The basic idea is that when someone is presented with information, some level of “elaboration” occurs. Elaboration, in this context, means the effort someone makes to evaluate, remember, and accept (or reject) a message.

The model suggests that people express either high or low elaboration (that is, their level of effort) when they encounter a persuasive message. The level of elaboration then determines which processing route the message takes: central or peripheral.

  Central route processing Peripheral route processing
Elaboration High Low
Information processing Contents of message are closely examined by the receiver Receiver is influenced by factors other than the contents of the message
Attitude Will change or be reinforced based on message characteristics such as strength of argument and relevancy Might change or be reinforced based on the effectiveness of factors other than the message
Strength of attitude formed/reinforced More enduring and less subject to counterarguments Less enduring and subject to change through future persuasive messages
Table 1: Comparison of central route processing and peripheral route processing.

Central route processing means your audience cares more about the message. They’ll pay more attention and scrutinize the quality and strength of the argument. Any attitudes formed or reinforced this way are thought to be more enduring and resistant to counter-arguments.

Peripheral route processing happens on a more superficial level. Your audience will pay less attention to the message itself while being influenced by secondary factors, such as source credibility, visual appeal, presentation, and enticements like food, sex, and humor. Attitudes formed or reinforced this way are thought to be less enduring, subject to change through counter-arguments, and in need of continual reinforcement.

To illustrate the difference between central and peripheral route processing—and how messaging and design can be used to simultaneously address each route—let’s look at the behemoth that is online retailer Amazon.com.

A tale of two paths

Imagine two potential customers, both in need of a new television. Suzanne is a technophile and regular Amazon user, while Kevin rarely makes purchases online, and is mostly interested in finding a quality television at a good price. Amazon wants to persuade both users to purchase a television (any television) through its website.

Central route processing

While both users will have some level of central route processing (especially for pricing), it is more likely that Suzanne, with her interest in technology, will be attentive to the messages and design. Assuming she agrees with what she sees, she’ll be more inclined to purchase through Amazon versus a less persuasive competitor.

For Amazon, this is critical; its competitors include stores where potential customers can interact face to face with knowledgeable sales reps. So it has to make product information easy for users to access by including multiple options for searching and sorting, offering detailed product descriptions, and providing in-depth product reviews written by fellow shoppers.

Image of Amazon search results
Amazon search results can be sorted and filtered by numerous variables.

Suzanne searches for high-end TVs, filters them from high to low ratings, and reads the reviews. After making her decision, she uses the “Buy now with 1-Click” option, since all of her information is already up to date in Amazon’s system; Amazon’s reliability and service over the years has earned her trust.

Suzanne was not a hard sell for Amazon; this is due in part to years of persuasive factors that have shaped her buying habits. If central route processing has occurred in a positive direction, Suzanne is also likely to purchase from Amazon again in the future, while Amazon’s competitors will have a harder time persuading her to purchase from them.

Peripheral route processing

Amazon does not leave the casual user hanging when it comes to persuasive design. Many elements of its design are meant to appeal to peripheral route processing.

First, look at its use of visual hierarchy. The product page’s focal point, a nice large photo of the product itself, is perfect for holding attention—no reading necessary to see that gem. It also offer options to view the product from multiple angles. The numerous filtering options allow potential customers to choose from a broad range of categories that can serve as a shortcut to selecting a product they have little interest in researching in-depth (e.g. price, rating, age of product).

Screenshot of Amazon product page, showing product details
Amazon provides a detailed product description, highlights potential savings, and makes adding to the cart obvious and simple.

Let’s say that Kevin, our less motivated potential customer, is curious to see how much TV he can get for his money. After searching for televisions in the impossible-to-miss search bar on the homepage, he immediately sorts the results by price from low to high. Next, using the filters offered on the left of the screen, he selects to view only TVs with four stars or more. (Why spend time reading a review when you can see four shiny stars at a glance?)

Kevin notices the percentage saved and the low-price guarantee that comes with his purchase. Additionally, free shipping is offered in bold type directly next to the price. Appealing to a user’s pocketbook is an excellent form of peripheral route persuasion. This penny-pincher won’t even have to pay for the convenience of having the product shipped to his front door.

Utilizing visual hierarchy at its finest, the second most eye-catching element of this page is the blatantly obvious “Add to Cart” button. You can guess how the scenario unfolds from here.

Notice that both routes lead to the same outcome—and that design elements are not exclusive to one route or the other. People often process information using some level of both routes—the routes can complement each other. For example, Suzanne would be more likely to process the information in the product description through the central route, but utilize the star-rating filter as a peripheral route shortcut to viewing TVs highly rated by likeminded shoppers. She was persuaded by elements from both routes. High-five to Amazon!

Suzanne is more likely to maintain her positive attitude towards making purchases on Amazon.com, thanks to central route processing, whereas Kevin will need some convincing in the future not to go check out the big box store down the street (the free shipping should help!).

Persuasion goes hand-in-hand with messaging and design, but there are also ways to do it wrong: distractions can undermine your persuasive techniques just as quickly as you can develop them. If your potential user encounters nine pop-ups, long loading time, or three pages of disclaimers to get to the meat of your message, they are never going to choose to taste it. Distractions, whether physical, visual, or intangible, can temporarily halt the whole elaboration process.

Could you please elaborate on that?

What promotes central route processing and high elaboration? Researchers have explored two main factors: motivation and ability.

Motivation is often influenced by the relevance of a topic to an individual. A user who feels directly impacted by a topic is more likely to process a message through the central route. This explains why Facebook asks why a user blocked an ad; not everyone finds a free trial of Viagra compelling, but eventually Facebook intends to crack the code on what each user finds relevant. You can account for this in your own work with a strong message that shows your users why your product is relevant to their lives.

Ability is exactly what you think it is. For central route processing to occur, your message must be in line with the thinking abilities of your audience. If an individual does not have the mental ability to process your message, they will not be able to critically evaluate it, and are guaranteed to process it through the peripheral route. Yes, if you want to effectively persuade someone, your message actually has to be conveyed in a way they understand. Shocking.

In other words: if you want users to actually pay attention to your message, make it directly relevant and easy to understand.

What does this mean for working on the web?

How can you put the Elaboration Likelihood Model and other tenets of persuasion into practice? First, you need to account for the following elements to effectively persuade your users:

  • Message: what’s being said, marketing efforts, content, and copy
  • Design: visual hierarchy, navigation, and layout
  • Delivery: load time, user experience, rewards, and bells and whistles

This all seems simple enough—provided you know a lot about your target audience and what motivates them. This is where it is best to sit down with a professional user researcher and develop a list of questions about what your audience values; what their fears, hopes, and dreams are; and what existing challenges you face in persuading them. A researcher can also conduct a brief review of past research on persuasion in your field, which will help back your current efforts.

Then, take a closer look at your work. A lot of what we have discussed can be boiled down to clarity and simplicity:

  • Is your message clear?
  • Are you telling people exactly why your product/website is relevant to their lives (or could be) in an easily understood way?
  • Are you guiding people to the actions you want them to take? Does your design facilitate this?
  • Does your design incorporate elements of persuasion that will help potential users become users?

Asking these questions of your work will help you be laser-sharp when it comes to persuading your users.

Have I been persuasive?

For some of your users, you may only need to provide a convincing message—that is, one that shows the relevancy of your work to their life and helps shape or reinforce a positive attitude. However, many will probably process your message through low levels of elaboration. They will need clear content, good design, and efficient delivery to bolster their receptiveness to your message or product.

Being persuasive requires a conscious effort. Conducting user research, incorporating the tenets of good design, and understanding how persuasion works will help you appeal to more users through both central and peripheral processing routes.

Designing for both paths of the Elaboration Likelihood Model isn’t just good in theory; it’s good in practice. This purposeful incorporation of persuasion will bring a new level of effectiveness to your craft, eventually enabling you to move your audience to process your messages through the central route—the sign of a truly persuasive design.

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