Date of Graduation

12-2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Agricultural & Extension Education (MS)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

Agricultural Education, Communications and Technology

Advisor

Jefferson D. Miller

Committee Member

Leslie D. Edgar

Second Committee Member

Casandra Cox

Third Committee Member

Dennis Beck

Keywords

Communication and the arts; Biological sciences; Education; Agricultural issues; Agricultural websites; Agriculture; Focus group; Public perceptions

Abstract

This study sought to evaluate perceptions of agricultural issues and organizations based on how information is presented visually in websites. Researchers intended the results to be used to help the agricultural industry more effectively communicate information through better website design and increased persuasiveness. The study was conducted through the use of three focus group sessions as mapped out by Krueger (1998a, 1998b, 1998c) and Morgan (1998a, 1998b). The study used non-agriculture students purposively selected from a class in the University of Arkansas School of Human Environmental Sciences as participants in the study. The subject demographics closely resembled the primary demographics of grocery store consumers (Carpenter & Moore, 2006). Four websites containing information on pink slime, or lean finely textured beef, were selected for the focus groups to review. The websites were selected based on a rubric created by the researchers and an expert panel, which incorporated selection criteria based on the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Caciappo, 1981) and on design characteristics identified by Williams and Tollett (2007) and Robins et al. (2010). Characteristics considered in the selection of the websites were positive or negative textual content, images/video, organization, typography, and colors. The researchers selected two websites with positive information on the topic, one with low aesthetic quality and one with high aesthetic quality. The other two websites selected contained negative information on the topic with one having low aesthetic quality and one having a high aesthetic quality. The focus group discussions followed a questioning route to increase consistency (Krueger, 1998c). The study's first objective was to identify how webpage visitors' perceptions of agricultural issues and sources are affected by visual design. The second objective was to identify the specific peripheral cues in organizations' websites that were most important in the visitors' formulation of opinions related to agricultural issues or organizations. Recurring themes were identified from the focus group sessions by examining flip-chart notes and audio recordings from the meetings. Users' perceptions of credibility were acutely affected by visual design. In websites with low aesthetic quality, participants thought the credibility of the site was very low, but for websites with high aesthetic quality, users' perceptions of credibility were much more positive, regardless of the content. Specific examples in ten categories of design characteristics were identified as important peripheral cues that could affect users' ability to be persuaded by the website, especially in situations where users were least likely to read and work to understand the meaning of the content. These conclusions led to very specific recommendations for practitioners as well as researchers regarding the design of websites presenting information about agricultural issues. For example, website designers working for agricultural organizations should work to develop cleaner, more modern designs to improve perceptions of credibility, therefore improving the likelihood that visitors will be persuaded through peripheral cues.

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