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How to apply the elaboration likelihood model to your next design

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

January 08, 2022

We answer dozens of questions every day, but how we come up with those answers varies. Some questions — such as “what’s your name?” — require very little thought and can be answered automatically. Others — like “why do you want the job?” — require careful consideration and deliberate attention. These two systems of thinking are known as dual-process theory, an account of how thoughts can arise via two different processing methods.

The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (ELM) is a type of dual-process theory that describes attitudes. And it’s an incredibly important theory for designers to understand and apply to their designs.

What is the elaboration likelihood model?

According to ELM, there are two routes for shaping user attitudes: a central route and a peripheral route.

  • Central route processing involves a high level of elaboration (i.e. cognitive effort) from the user. Users are highly motivated and invested in making the right decision. They focus deeply on finding and understanding the information available to them. Consequently, when they form an opinion and decide to act on the information, they’re likely to maintain their decision and resist further persuasion. This is because of the ‘work,’ or mental energy, the user devoted to reaching that decision.
  • Peripheral route processing involves a low level of elaboration. Positive or negative cues are the main drivers behind this type of processing. These cues have little to do with the quality of the stimulus and more to do with the attractiveness of the source, such as a trusted friend or colleague. The presentation of the message can also play a role (i.e. how aesthetically pleasing the website or app is). The peripheral route to persuasion is largely based on emotions and is much easier to influence.

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide on the validity of the messages they receive. The elaboration likelihood model simply describes how users process various stimuli and the malleability of their attitudes once formed.

Factors that influence elaboration likelihood model

Again, elaboration refers to the amount of effort a user is willing to put into making a decision. To design successful products, it’s essential to know which factors have the greatest impact on elaboration. Keep the following factors in mind as you learn more about the target user.

  • Significance: do you create products that typically have a longer customer journey because of their cost or function?
  • Personal relevance: what is the impact on the user’s wellbeing, lifestyle, or happiness?
  • Timing: are external factors affecting how much time the user has to make a decision?
  • Urgency: is there an incentive to act quickly or lose out on a good opportunity?
  • Knowledge: how much does the user already know about the topic?
  • Risk: what is at stake for the customer if the decision turns out to be the wrong one?

Keep in mind, the same person may use a central or peripheral thought process, depending on the decision. Not every factor applies to everyone, and the influence level of each factor is based on where users fall in the customer journey.

ELM theory in the real world

Let’s say you want to buy a new fridge. If your only requirement is a maximum price of $300 and your friend recommends one, you’re likely to make your purchase based on the peripheral route. Your decision won’t require much thought.

However, if you want a specific price, a good energy rating, an ice maker, two crispers, and a mint green color scheme, then you’ll give the buying process a lot more thought. In other words, you’ll use the central route to persuasion to reach your decision.

Good web design takes both of these thought processes into consideration. When selling a fridge online, for example, the site needs convincing, well-written, and well-designed content and persuasive cues that lead you (the buyer) toward the call to action (CTA). Of course, opposing stimuli could still change your decision before you buy, but a website that appeals to both routes will make this less likely to happen.

How marketers can use the elaboration likelihood model

Marketers often use secondary factors to attract users who are currently engaged in peripheral thinking and who aren’t focused on the messaging.

Free gifts, celebrity endorsements, humor, and lifestyle branding are common tactics for capturing an audience’s attention. This connection is weaker than an opinion formed via the central processing route. The message won’t capture attention on an intellectual level because the customer’s focus is lower. But it could lead customers to form a positive attitude about the brand.

How to incorporate ELM theory into your design

As you’ve probably worked out, appealing to both modes of thinking gives you a far higher chance of success than appealing to one alone. To do this, you need to look at your audience’s motivation and ability.

Motivation refers to the relevance of the message. For example, if you’re designing a site that sells baseball bats, seasoned players who know what kind of gear they want would be highly motivated to buy.

Beginners who are curious about entry-level equipment will be moderately motivated. And a student who ended up on the site accidentally while researching bat species for a school report would have zero motivation.

First, you’ll need to identify exactly who your audience is. Consider demographics, such as age, geographic location, and lifestyle, and then target your messaging to their ability to process information.

If the messaging doesn’t speak to your audience’s motivations, you could lose their attention fast. So for our baseball site example, you would create content and imagery with the tone and authority of an enthusiast. That way, visitors feel as though they’re talking to someone who loves baseball and understands their needs. Make the content relatable to the user to evoke positive or aspirational feelings.

How to make your site work for both modes of thinking

1. The highly motivated central thinker

Assess the mindset of each type of thinker. A seasoned baseball player looking for a new bat will heavily scrutinize the offering. As a result, it’s crucial to organize your content according to a strong visual hierarchy. Once customers identify something they’re interested in, they will drill down on the details.

As a rule of thumb, you should include the option to zoom in on product images and provide a drop-down menu with technical specifications. Including celebrity endorsements or a short video of the bat in action makes the product seem more dynamic.

It’s equally important to present this information where users expect it to be. Make sure users focus their cognitive effort on the task at hand: deciding to buy the product.

Once visitors fully evaluate their options, compare prices and ratings, and make a final decision, your site should lead them towards the checkout. Design a conversion path that’s easy to navigate, so users have few reasons to abandon a transaction.

2. The casual peripheral thinker

A newbie baseball player should feel equally welcome on the site. Create imagery that’s inspiring yet inclusive: perhaps, a picture of a famous baseball player in action or a crowd cheering on a player at bat. To the seasoned enthusiast, this is someone on their level and an experience they can relate to. To a newbie, this is their hero and someone they aspire to be.

Develop web copy that’s both friendly and authoritative with jargon-free language. The interface should be intuitive and contain features that help users prioritize what they’re looking for and find things quickly.

For a casual shopper looking for an entry-level bat, the option to organize products according to price and customer rating is particularly helpful. The site could also make use of secondary factors, such as celebrity endorsements, to capture and hold the casual user’s attention.

How to keep both visitors coming back

You can have a site that appeals to central and peripheral thinkers. The difference between the two is loyalty.

Experienced baseball players approach the site from a central processing route. They’re far more likely to return to shop again due to the level of thought that went into making a choice the first time around. Newbies who approach from a periphery perspective will have much lower levels of loyalty. A different recommendation from a friend, for example, could easily sway this type of user to switch to another site.

Fortunately, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to build upon the peripheral route to persuasion. Loyalty programs, promotions, and newsletters are just a few examples. Designers can incorporate subscription buttons, push notifications, and social media icons into their design, so shoppers receive periodic reminders about their brand offerings.

Final thoughts

Strong UI/UX design is the foundation of any good website. Working out the ways in which your intended audience engages with your site can help you tailor your design to reflect their modes of thinking.

Structure content to accommodate both types of thinkers, and supply enough information to answer a user’s most important questions about the product. Carefully plan your site with quality wireframing software to ensure your navigation is intuitive and essential information, such as CTAs and images, is placed where it can’t be ignored.

Every element should work together to drive conversions, lowering cognitive load while increasing engagement. No matter what brings a specific user to your site, they will have far more mental energy to focus on the task at hand.


This post was originally published on September 11, 2019, and updated most recently on January 8, 2022.



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