Take some time to surf the Net across countries. Look at some European Union
sites. Then look at some Asian sites (India, China, Japan). When we ask people to
do this exercise, they often identify sites that don’t fit their expectations and
say, “Oh, those places… they are just behind in the adoption of Web technologies,
so their Web site designs are still messy and cluttered. In a few years, they will
look more like ours.” It may be so — presently — that their sites will begin to
look more like ours. Or, maybe ours will begin to look more like theirs. But it’s
not clear that the reason theirs look different now is that they are lagging behind.
There are great designers all over. They may be designing to the beat of a different
Consider this study: Masuda and Nisbett (2001) present evidence that when asked to
describe the same picture, Japanese participants reported 60% more information about
the background than Americans did. Further, Japanese participants observed background
changes more accurately than Americans. In contrast, Americans reported more details
about the image’s central object. Americans were also better at recognizing the same
object against a new background.
Nisbett and colleagues chalk this up to different cognitive processing style.
Americans (and Westerners) they say are more analytic. They pay more attention to
the focal object. They analyze its attributes and strive to assign the central object
to a specific category. In contrast, East Asians tend to pay more attention to the
broader context. They focus less on the specific objects and more on the relationships
between them. East Asians take a more holistic approach.
This is an intriguing difference. But how do we apply it to Web design? Effective
designers guide their users’ attention using visuals. To create effective, persuasive
interactions, designers need to know what draws attention and where viewers’ eyes
The two groups in Masuda and Nisbett’s research saw the same picture. But they
reported different things. What happened? Did the participants look at the same
parts of the same picture and just remember different things? Or do they actually
see the picture differently — looking at and lingering on different elements?