The MAIN Model

Sundar, S. S. (2008). The MAIN model: A heuristic approach to understanding technology effects on credibility. In M. J. Metzger & A. J. Flanagin (Eds.), Digital media, youth, and credibility (pp. 72-100). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Why is this important? 

  • Source, message and medium credibility serve as nominal cues
  • Credibility of source is an important factor in CMC that historically is hard to measure
  • The Main model discusses technological affordance that can allow for heuristic processing of cues in an online setting to make judgements on credibility of the source or medium. 
  • It is nearly impossible to track the source, credibility and judgements across digital media. 

An affordance (interactivity of a website) conveys a certain cue (invite to live chat) that triggers a heuristic (service) leading to an automatic deduction that good service means good quality of information, thus leading to a high level of credibility. 

The Main Model 

Abstract Summary

Sundar takes a heuristic approach to understanding the cues and affordances in digital media technologies. The MAIN model aids researchers, agencies and users to better design and position devices, websites and experiences to meet the affordances of digital media users. 

Cues and Affordances

These are characterized by affordances in digital media and are viewed as promising in their ability to cue cognitive heuristics (judgements) related to credibility assessments. These are all structural features that underlie the design aspects or surface level features associated with good or bad first impressions of web site credibility. 

What can cue markers do? Social psychologists have long argued that cues in
a persuasion context can lead message receivers to make loose associations between the cue and the message.

Elaboration Likelihood Model 

ELM -  The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) labels such cues as peripheral cues and the resulting
attitude formation as having taken the peripheral route.

Heuristic-systematic model

HSM -  makes a similar distinction, with systematic processing referring to a detailed analytical consideration of judgment-relevant information, and heuristic processing relying on mental shortcuts to judgmental rules (or heuristics) that are already stored in memory

The affordance can be seen as a repository of cues to help in the judgement in the quality of the content, site or device

Modality Cues

The most structural of the four affordances and the most apparent on an interface. Computer based media has complicated traditional modalities and now use the term multimedia.  Through this, several different heuristic can be triggered. 

Print/Online Modalities 

The New York Times print is very similar in design to the traditional newspaper outline. 

Video Modalities 

Audio Modalities 

Being-there heuristic 

Virtual Space, telepresence as the ‘being-there heuristic’. The Google Cardboard Project by Volvo is a recent example of virtual reality triggering the 'being there heuristic. Oculus Rift is a similar example. 

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Bells and Whistles heuristic

Voice recognition software, Siri, etc. Which can lead to the ‘coolness heuristic’ or the ‘novelty heuristic’.

Agency Cues 

The agency affordance of digital media helps make possible the assignment of sourcing the particle entities in the chain of communication from the computer to an online location or multiple locations. 

Machine heuristic

Sundar identifies a common heuristic that individuals use when viewing online information, the machine-heuristic. This suggests that people assign greater credibility to information that is chosen by a machine or computer.  which is considered being free of idealogical bias. Examples of tag-based news feeds, such as Feedly,  and Flipboard. are examples of machine-like  results that are random and objective - and can result in positive credibility judgements. The alternative is anthropomorphic results, that are human sourced. - a website that aggregates and delivers news based on interests and categories. 

  Flipboard  is a news feed app. 

Flipboard is a news feed app. 

The machine-heuristic may also inform the way that customers of online information process system-generated cues as pieces of information that are system or machine rendered. Examples are the number of friends one has on facebook, the connections on LinkedIn or the number of followers on Twitter (Westerman et. al, 2011).

Bandwagon heuristic 

If others think it is a good story, I should think it is too.  

Fast Company tracks share counts on their stories. 

Authority Heuristic

Relies on endorsement for credibility assessment. Verified user accounts on social media are a form of rapid credibility assessment.   

Interactivity Cues

Interactivity affordance in digital media is capable of cueing a wide variety of cognitive heuristics and is the most distinctive affordance of digital media.

Activity heuristic 

Is a departure from traditional static, or passive media, such as television. That is the mouse is much more of an active process when on the web, than using the remote when watching television.  

Interaction heuristic 

User specifying their needs and preferences on and ongoing basis.  

 Customizing a playlist based on 'likes' or 'dislikes'...

Customizing a playlist based on 'likes' or 'dislikes'...

 Organizing your apps on a device...

Organizing your apps on a device...

Customizing who and what you want to see from an individual on Facebook

Responsive Heuristics

Interactivity further suggests that the medium is responsive to a users needs. This can be in the form of their device needs, their information needs or their preferences. 

Navigability Cues 

The navigability affordance has the dual ability to directly trigger heuristics with different navigational aids on the interface as well as to transmit cues through the content that it generates. 

Elaboration heuristic

  • Leading to elaborative processing and higher knowledge - structure density

Browsing heuristic

  • Encourages users to skim the site that is full of links and browse the contents

Scaffolding heuristics

  • Whereby the user understands the role of the navigational aids as helping them. 

Google's Material Design is a wonderful example of scaffolding heuristics. This is an excerpt from the principles section of the material design guideline: 

Surfaces and edges of the material provide visual cues that are grounded in reality. The use of familiar tactile attributes helps users quickly understand affordances. Yet the flexibility of the material creates new affordances that supercede those in the physical world, without breaking the rules of physics.

Attributes of a good theory

  • Explanatory Power – Main model pairs down the complexities of the cues and affordances in digital technologies and media
  • Predictive Power – can predict judgement calls and explain the heuristics involved in decision making process. However, it does not explain what can, or will take place after judgement
  • Parsimony – It’s power is in its simplification of a complex issue
  • Falsifiability – The affordances and cues are subject to criticism
  • Internal Consistency – The MAIN model can explain interactions contained in digital media, and could be used across mediums
  • Heuristic Provocativeness – The MAIN model has sparked new research and has implications for todays technology and digital media, more so than when it was original published. 
  • Existing Knowledge – This contributes towards studies contained in the ELM, HLM, persuasion, digital media and computer mediated communication


The Main model can offer design advantages to systems, websites and devices, in addition to aiding researchers. Heuristics based approach is more effective than the checklist approach of credibility valuations. This taps into the rapid, implicit and natural decisions made by youth in their interactions with digital media.

What are some of the navigational cues that you rely on when browsing a website? 


Do you feel that technological affordances aid in the credibility of a source, website or information?