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Effective Message Framing To Motivate Users

What you say in a user experience matters. How you say it matters equally. The way you frame communication, or how you say something, could be extremely effective at persuading people to start using your product (or to use it more).

So, how do you frame messages effectively? This article explains how design teams can do so in a way that resonates with their users.

Help! I’ve Been Framed! Link

  • Framing is how you say something, using a “frame of communication.”
  • Frames are story lines that make an issue relevant to a particular audience. Framing is not lying. It is putting a particular spin (a frame) on factual details.
  • Framing effects occur when a message frame alters someone’s opinion on an issue.

For example, telling someone that smoking causes cancer and that they should consider quitting is not likely to produce any long-lasting change in their opinion towards smoking. Most smokers have heard these words all their life. However, smokers who view this (caution: video may be unsuitable for some viewers) video1 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which frames the consequences of smoking in a very graphic way, have found it to have a long-lasting impact on their attitude towards smoking. In this case, both the message and the medium make the video a more powerful frame of communication.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

How Framing Applies To Good Design Link

We have talked about framing messages, but what’s that got to do with design? Everything. Everyone on a UX design team plays a role in effectively framing messaging and design. Frames consist of the words, images, metaphors, comparisons and presentation styles to communicate an issue.

Communications expert Mathew Nisbet6, professor at Northeastern University, states7:

“There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing.”

Nisbet makes it clear: Accounting for framing should be a part of your overall content strategy. Good content doesn’t just happen; it requires the same level of detail that you apply to the rest of your design.

Let’s check out some examples of framing, as well as how to use visual design to frame a message for greater impact.

Suppose you are designing for a bank that provides mortgages to clients. The bank’s target demographic is upwardly mobile young professionals: college graduates ages 28 to 35, with a household income at or near six figures annually. Your client would like these customers to apply for mortgages. Your job is to frame the message of the public-facing mortgage page on the website.

message framing : the way you say it
The way you frame communication, or how you say something, could be extremely effective at persuading people to start using your product (or to use it more). (Image credit)

Framing Without A Visual Aid (Message Is Words Only) Link

You find through pre-design user interviews that users in the target demographic often check out the current annual percentage rate (APR) when surfing your client’s website. You can frame the APR for a mortgage as follows:

Today’s mortgage APR: 3.75% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Save today!

Potential borrowers don’t have much to get excited about. The message is short, which is positive. However, the 3.75% APR and 30-year term aren’t concepts that most people find instantly relatable. Is 3.75% good? What was the rate yesterday? What will it be tomorrow? Why 30 years? What can this interest rate do for me over that length of time? Should I wait? It does say “save today,” but I’m pretty busy today. I should probably wait. The bank doesn’t seem to be too concerned that this rate is going anywhere.

You can present the same information like this:

Today’s mortgage APR is at an all time low of 3.75%. Complete our pre-qualification form now to lock in this rate. This rate would save you enough money on a $250,000 loan over 20 years to send your child to college when compared to an increase of just 1%, which could happen at any time.

You have framed the message to motivate behavior: Act now! Rates could change at any time. You have presented the user with context to motivate them to apply for a mortgage in the near term: Rates are at an all-time low. This means they were higher yesterday or last week. This means they might be higher tomorrow or next week.

While the 3.75% is still a somewhat murky concept, the user does see that this would save them enough to send a child to college in 20 years — unlike a 4.75% rate, which really doesn’t sound like that much more, but must be. The user is thinking of having or adopting a child within the next few years, which would make saving enough to send the kid to college over that time period perfect. Also, it is clear what they need to do next: fill out the pre-qualification form and get in touch with the mortgage officer.

Both of the examples above require reading and a deep level of comprehension to motivate the user. This is where visual framing comes into play. Let’s use the same bank and target demographic. When users land on the APR page, they see the following:

Today’s mortgage APR is at an all time low of 3.75%.

If you lock in today’s low rate, you will allow your family to relax in their dream home for years to come.

If you lock in today’s low rate, your family will be able to relax in its dream home for years to come. (Image: David Sawyer8)

If you wait and rates rise, your new home might not have room for the grandparents to visit! (Image: simpleinsomnia9)

Users will be much more motivated to engage in behavior that leads to their dream home (act now), rather than the very sad shack that might not have enough room for the grandparents when they visit (wait). You have made your point without putting the focus on understanding the 3.75% rate, and you have preempted the user’s internal dialogue from the first two examples.

Let’s consider another example of the impact of visuals on framing information.

Suppose you are going to be giving a presentation on fire safety to first-graders. You need to grab their attention immediately or else you will lose them for the entire session. How might you kick off the visuals in your presentation? Here are two ways to frame fire safety and prevention:


First example of opening slide about fire safety and prevention (Image: DocStoc10)

Second example of opening slide about fire safety and prevention (Image: Wikipedia11)

Which opening slide do you think is more likely to grab the attention of a first-grader, or anyone for that matter? You have presented your audience with the same information, but you will likely get two very different reactions. Effective framing in this case means the difference between snores and cheers. The second example will captivate much of your audience for the important stuff that follows.

Now that we have covered framing and design, let’s look at some tried-and-true techniques that you can use to effectively frame messages.

Effectively Framing Messages Sounds Great. How Do I Do It? Link

Private industry is, predictably, on the cutting edge of marketing techniques. However, nonprofits and the US government are well aware of the importance of effective framing. The CDC in particular has invested a lot of resources into researching how to effectively frame public health issues, including fire, injury and smoking.

The process described below for developing a well-framed message is adapted from the CDC’s research-based guide12 (PDF, 1.35 MB) on framing messages for injury prevention. I also used this modified method in my dissertation to create different messages to test on zoo visitors.

Identify Your Target Audience Link

First, decide exactly whom you are speaking to.

You can identify your target audience in a number of ways. Involve as many of your core team members as possible. Have you done any research on audience segmentation? If so, start by creating a message that will appeal to one of your largest audience segments. If you haven’t discussed your target audience, now is a good time to start.

I have one rule for identifying a target audience. Your key audience cannot be everybody!

If you think you can develop a message that will appeal to everyone at the same time, let me save you the effort by saying you can’t. Rather, you would say different things to different people to motivate them.

One-size-fits-all doesn’t work with t-shirts, and it doesn’t work with messages.

In my dissertation, I targeted English-speaking adult visitors to natural history museums, science centers and zoos in the US.

Identify A Frame For Your Messages Link

Many frames exist. Choose one, and use it consistently throughout your messaging.

Examples of Frames Link

  • Value-based
    We know that people make decisions based on more than just the facts alone. Values-based frames access users’ underlying values to motivate them to engage in a desired behavior. Common Cause has a guide13 on values and framing.
  • Financial benefits
    This frame highlights the financial benefits of engaging in a particular behavior.
  • Gain
    This focuses on what users will gain from engaging (or not engaging) in a particular behavior.
  • Loss
    A loss frame focuses on what users will lose from engaging (or not engaging) in a behavior.

Researchers continually examine14 (PDF) which frames best motivate people to engage in certain behaviors. If you are not in a position to review relevant literature in order to choose a frame, then ask your UX researcher15 to do this.

Framing Elements Link

Message creators need to consider additional elements when framing a message:

  • Urgency
    Messages are more compelling when they contain “best,” “worst,” “first,” “last” and other words that create a sense of urgency.
  • Persistence
    Users should encounter your message multiple times, in multiple places.
  • Simplicity
    Users should be able to easily understand the message.
  • Use of metaphors
    Metaphors make abstract topics more concrete or understandable. Political communication16 (PDF, 277 KB) often uses metaphors.
  • Use of visuals
    Visuals play a key role in framing messages. The Frameworks Institute notes17 (PDF, 212 KB) that the importance of visuals doesn’t stop at the raw content. Message creators also need to consider the placement and sequence of visuals.

Make A Strong And Clear Statement About The Product Link

What do you want people to take away from your message? You can’t assume that you can bury this under an avalanche of witty euphemisms or roundabout references to what your product does. Be clear.

Incorporate the following principles to create a strong and clear message.

Use Positive Language and Avoid Negativity Link

Focus on how great the product is or how important the cause is, rather than how terrible the alternatives are (doing that would just make your product seem less bad, not more good). If you cast stones at the competition, expect nothing but the same in return.

Highlight Personal Responsibility And Control: Empower Your Users Link

Your message should explicitly show how using your product will give users more control. For example, telling users that your financial management software will put them in charge of their financial future makes for a much stronger message than simply noting how many options the software provides for sorting transactions in different categories.

Avoid Jargon (Your Field Doesn’t Have Jargon, Right?) Link

By avoiding jargon, you avoid assuming that your audience has background knowledge of your product. If your target audience is heavily involved in your field, then you might want to incorporate some industry-specific language to make a stronger connection with those users. You don’t always have to target the lowest common denominator; however, doing so allows your message to be understandable to the broadest number of potential users.

Include a Call to Action: Tell Users What You Want Them to Do! Link

Do you want users to purchase something, to get more information, to call their local politician? Be explicit and direct. If you have constructed an effective message, then be confident in stating what you want the audience to do with that information. Your message’s visual design is critical to this point. Are you clearly displaying what actions your users should take?

For Longer Messages and Persuasive Essays Link

If you are framing a long message or an essay, consider additional factors. A well-framed longer message includes the following:

  • A title or headline that tells the reader what the message is about and why they should care.
  • No more than one key message.
  • A lead paragraph that captures the reader’s attention.
  • A “nut” paragraph (i.e. the heart of your story — the details go here).
  • Relevant quotes to make the topic more relatable.

Your chances of successfully framing a message increase by following the guidance presented above. However, there is one more requirement to effectively framing a message.

Test Your Message Link

Test your message before unleashing it on users. Don’t assume what people know or how they will understand something. By testing your message, you ensure that your frame comes across clearly.

Testing can be simple and not resource-intensive. Everyone on the design team should work together here. Ideally, you would use the frame(s) you are considering to formulate multiple messages. I also recommend testing what your team thinks are the worst one or two messages it’s created. You’d be surprised by what resonates with users. This is the entire point of user research: You can’t assume what the user wants; find ways to get users to tell you what they want!

You can test messages the old-fashioned way by printing out the designs, laminating them and approaching people in scenarios that would be typical for your product. Seeing how someone responds to a message can be eye-opening. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as are facial expressions.

You can also conduct research online. You can easily insert screenshots into survey questions using online survey software, such as SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo18. Many testing services will also recruit participants according to your specific demographics. Testing through a service such as UserTesting19 is also very quick and inexpensive.

Ask Seven Questions Link

Once you’ve developed your messages and designs, ask potential users the following seven questions:

  • Does this message make sense?
  • How does this message make you feel?
  • What do you think this message is asking you to do? (Ask this even if the message isn’t asking for anything.)
  • With whom do you think this message will resonate?
  • What would you change about this message to make it clearer?
  • What would you change about this message to make it speak directly to you?
  • What do you feel this message does well?

And if you are comparing multiple messages, then ask this question too:

  • Which message do you think resonates the most? Why?

The number of people you test your message on will depend on the outcome you wish to achieve. Test on as many people as you feel is useful; don’t feel you have to conduct a study worthy of publication in an academic journal. If you speak to 10 representative users and they all give you similar responses, then you might be comfortable moving forward. Their feedback will at least give you insight into potential confusion or misunderstanding of the terminology in your messages. If the responses are varied, then your message is probably not coming across clearly. Incorporate the feedback above to make the message clearer, and then retest the new message.

I tested my dissertation messages with visitors to a local art museum before deploying them in my studies. I tested each message on 20 visitors, asking them whether the message was clear. I asked participants to identify which frame they felt I was using (to ensure that I had framed the messages clearly). I also used my committee of four, each with a PhD, to check the quality of the messages. Then, I conducted research using a number of survey questions to determine characteristics of visitors and how they perceived the messages.

Other Methods of Testing Link

You can test messages using other methods as well. For example, you could pose the same questions listed above to a focus group. A/B testing20 will also reveal which of two (or more) messages users prefer.

Putting It All Together Link

We’ve covered how to effectively frame a message, and how to test it before implementation. Design teams need to give deeper thought to how they are conveying their message, not just what they are saying. Outlined above is a process for creating and testing a message, which will help you communicate clearly and effectively with users. Your messages will resonate with them. Use this information to reassess your current messaging, and to move forward with future messaging.

Additional Resources Link

(cc, al, il, ml)

Footnotes Link

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Victor is a Philadelphia based researcher, author, and speaker. His book Design for the Mind, is available from Manning Publications. Victor frequently writes and speaks on the application of psychology to design and user research. You can follow him on Twitter @victoryocco

  1. 1

    Great article, explains a lot thank you for sharing.

  2. 2

    Mark F. Simchock

    November 12, 2014 2:47 pm

    re: “You have framed the message to motivate behavior: Act now! Rates could change at any time. You have presented the user with context to motivate them to apply for a mortgage in the near term: Rates are at an all-time low. This means they were higher yesterday or last week. This means they might be higher tomorrow or next week.”

    Yes. But the rates can also go lower as well, correct? Then what? If you’re that person you will immediate feel cheated, betrayed, etc. In short, regardless of – in this case – the legality of the relationship / contract the fact is, you just lost a customer.

    But wait. There’s more…Even worse, you gained an enemy (and perhaps even a law suit).

    I agree. Context is important. Clarity in communication is essential. That said, the truth is, you’re using “motivation”, when you really mean “manipulation.” Clearly, there’s a difference. To that I say: The 20th century called and it wants its sales tactic back.

    I get it. It’s just an example. But it’s a severely flawed one. It’s simply not a takeaway the less aware should be taught at this point. I guess I just had higher expectations. Sorry?

    p.s. And if don’t agree, then I’d suggest checking Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” and/or Daniel Pink’s “To Sell is Human.

    • 3

      Your comment really underlines the thin line between “manipulation” and “motivation”, something encountered in marketing on a daily basis, and sometimes that line is very much blurred.

      Though I don’t disagree with your point completely, I want to understand how framing the mortgage example the way the author did could result in a lawsuit?
      I didn’t see a promise in his messaging that mortgage rates would never again go down…

      I think he manipulated true statements in a way which would motivate users to click and buy. In our world (perhaps – sadly) that’s called marketing.

      • 4

        Mark F. Simchock

        November 12, 2014 8:19 pm

        1) Law suit reference was not necessarily example specific. i was simply pointing out that if you have to rely on manipulation then you’re all but begging for trouble.

        2) That said, as you said, there’s a gray area. Nothing benefits from gray area more than an aggressive lawyer / law firm. Right or wrong has nothing to do with such litigation, and the cost of defending such.

        3) re: “that’s called marketing.” Yes, in the 20th century that *was* called marketing. To that I agree. But it’s 2015. It’s time to move on. Not only aren’t people that naive any more but they’ll tell the world in a heart beat if you suck. If they have proof, the outcome is only worse.

        p.s. I’d also suggest reading Brian Solis “WTF (of Business)” if you want some perspective on where things are (or should) be), as well as where they are headed.

        Spoiler alert: Manipulation is not in his lexicon either.

    • 5

      Gnts – you’re welcome

      Mark – you don’t have to apologize, I welcome conversation or argument over the topic. I do disagree with you, however I will check out the publications you suggest.

      I absolutely do not mean manipulation, trickery, or duping someone. I have trouble with people vilifying persuasive communication. You can read my thoughts on that here:

      I do understand that designs can misuse persuasion and persuasive communication techniques and the banking industry in particular has been a perpetrator of many unsavory tactics.

      That said – you are focusing on the industry and not the message. Could rates go down tomorrow – yes. It happens all the time that we inform our decisions with messages based on the best knowledge at that time. Everything, including scientific facts, can change the next day. Sorry Pluto – you aren’t a major planet anymore. Sorry corn based ethanol – you actually aren’t going to save the environment. Can I sue someone for misinformation on those former facts? The fact is, interest rates can change tomorrow, your iPhone might be outdated tomorrow, the car you just purchased could be cheaper tomorrow, the groceries you bought on sale might be even cheaper next week. People have to make decisions and businesses have to sell products.

      If your client has asked you to design something to help them raise interest or sales of a product you are doing them a disservice if you aren’t thinking hard about how you communicate their message, both visually and with words, to increase conversion. If you have an ethical issue with something, don’t take the project.

      If someone is looking at mortgage APRs, and is close enough to a decision that a well-framed message will be the tipping point on when and who they use to provide their mortgage, I would rather account for this and give my client an advantage over a competitor with the same intentions, selling the same product, that has not accounted for a well-framed message to their users.


      • 6

        Mark F. Simchock

        November 12, 2014 8:25 pm

        Getting people to click is easy.

        Getting the right people to click for the right reasons is the challenge.

        At the same time, getting the wrong people to click for the wrong reasons can be detrimental to the future of your brand. That is, you got the click today, but at what cost to tomorrow?

        There is a significant delta between inspiring someone to do something that is best for them; and manipulating someone to do something that is best for you / the company / brand. There are plenty who don’t recognize let along understand that difference.

        I believe the authors / authorities / books referenced back up my “theory” / POV. Thanks again.

      • 7

        Mark F. Simchock

        November 13, 2014 4:47 am

        I think the difference is best summed up in this way:

        You’re championing the finer points of crafting a 20th century transaction.

        I’m mainly interested in imagining and discussing the curation of a 21st century relationship.

        Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not going to waste my time just to offend someone. But the reality is they are two very different perspective. Solis, Pink, Sinek and Jobs are probably just a bit ahead of the curve.

      • 8

        Mark F. Simchock

        November 16, 2014 3:55 pm

        While I’m not suggesting you’re advocating unethical methods, that assessment is not your’s or mine. That assessment belongs to the receiver of the message. This is worth the 15+ minutes. Be sure to key in on the bits around the 11.30+ mark.

        • 9

          Thanks Mark. I appreciate the resources.

          I don’t disagree with what the HBR guest says. I disagree with your implied categorization of my example as unethical or somehow tricking people. You seem to be overlooking that the next action I present is proactive information seeking: fill out a pre-qualification form, get in touch with a mortgage officer. Not “take out a loan tomorrow.” Following these steps would lead to a more informed decision, and generate a potential customer for the client in that scenario.

          I trust readers are aware that they don’t have to follow the example I provide, and that it was given to highlight how messages are framed. That is, I was being blatant about the action the message was promoting. It is no different than saying turn off the light to save energy! Will you really? Is that a guarantee? Prove it. Vote for Bob, he’ll lower taxes! Can he? Does his office even realistically hold that power? I won’t back away from my assertion (supported by communciations scholars) that all messages are framed, and an effective communicator is effective at framing. Do you have to use the frame I use in the example above? Nope.

  3. 10

    Nice Post…Thanks for sharing this!! Effective messages with the right, clear, and motivating words can make a huge difference and well said that framing applies to good design, which is absolutely true.

  4. 11

    Victor let me start by thanking you, this is a very informative post on framing which is core of everything today & yet we tend to put less stress on it.

    The tips & techniques listed in the article are very helpful to everyone starting from UX designer to online marketer.

    • 12

      Dharne and Nikunj – thanks for the comments. I’m glad you found value in the article.

  5. 13

    Our team of writers and reviewers has one goal: to lead students towards the right service for their needs

  6. 14

    A beautiful article that explains the messaging process in a confident and efficient way. I really like the suggested Testing techniques. This is a very important area that usually lacks our attention. Instead of involving real users, we trust on our own assumptions and as a result the user experience is suffered.

    While reading, I got a feeling that this article is inclined more towards Marketing messages, though many things are related to generic behaviors.

    Just want to add a point here, while working in Software development industry, we take care of three things while deciding on a message for user:
    Problem: What is the Problem?, Cause: Why it has occurred?, Solution: What is the possible Solution?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a helpful manner.

    • 15


      Great comment and observation. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I like the three questions you pose for your messaging. It would seem like this ensures a very focused message is sent to users.



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