This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
What you say in a user experience matters. How you say it matters equally. Framing is a technique of focusing the attention of people within a field of meaning. It is a form of agenda-setting. Frames are story lines that make an issue relevant to a particular audience. Framing effects occur when a message frame alters someone’s opinion on an issue. Framing is not lying. It is putting a particular spin (a frame) on factual details.
How something is presented (the ‘frame’) influences the choices people make. It is the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a public issue. A framing example is the ‘war on terror’ (it is not actually a war, but the term was used, probably with the aid of audience research, by the US administration to generate support for its actions).
Frames are used everywhere, whether we are conscious of it or not. What comes to your mind when you hear: Welfare queen, death panels, the safety net, nature vs. nurture, global economy, chain migration, climate change, the achievement gap, the invisible hand of the market, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, evidence-based medicine, clean coal—likely represents far more than each short phrase itself. Such ‘hot’ frames polarize discussions and limit a shared search for solutions.
Framing can be conveyed through:
A visual frame can have dramatic impact
Above: Victor Yocco has written an article highlighting two alternatives to a slide presentation about fire safety and prevention. The right hand slide has much more impact. The way the start of this presentation has been framed with the second slide will make it a much more memorable experience for the viewing audience.
US linguistic expert, Professor George Lakoff, give the example of ‘tax relief’ as a frame conceived by the Republican political party. The word ‘relief’ implies that taxes are unfair and have been imposed on innocent citizens. The Republicans will be the ones who rescue taxpayers by lifting the burden on them. Yet taxes provide the means for governments to provide essential public infrastructure.
According to Lakoff, metaphors are contained in most of the concepts of everyday life and should be used in communication activities.
He gives the example of an environmental group whose research found there are large numbers of toxic chemicals in our bodies and tried to publicize this in terms of statistics. The media response was minimal. Lakoff said the program should have been reconceptualized in a campaign called ‘Be Poison-free’. ‘Poison’ is a strong, emotive word that implies someone must be the poisoner. It makes you look at who is doing the poisoning – the companies that allow humans to be exposed to chemicals.
If you are working on media strategy, a speech or an issue, you should note the power of using metaphors and images in framing concepts for more effective communication. You can extend concepts into sub-concepts. For instance, if you frame your organization as a ship on a voyage, you can extend this frame or metaphor into related travel or progress sub-frames or themes such as steering the best course, avoiding the hazards (think Titanic here!), staying afloat, delivering cargo, keeping a good lookout for shoals and rocks, arriving safely at the destination, etc.
When you have developed your messages and designs, Victor Yocco suggests asking potential users these 7 questions:
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