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What do you see?

Before you continue reading this newsletter,
please tell us what you see in this picture

Toyota Prius

Imagine this scenario

Your Web group has created a persuasive and engaging Web site. Your user data stream shows that your customers are doing more on your site. Your usability data stream shows that they are also doing so more successfully.

More impressively, your design team has conducted careful, thoughtful research to beat banner blindness. They have explored the consumers' information needs and decision patterns. They've leveraged the site-use metrics to learn how consumers react to different design patterns. They've used this knowledge to optimize the placement of persuasive up-sell/cross-sell elements. They know that when, where and how you place ad elements counts as much as how the ad elements works.

The Web is an important part of your organization's home-country communication outreach and contributes substantially to your local success. But your organization is global. And based on the success of the site, top management has decided that your transaction-based Web site should be global, as well.

What does this mean for your site? Will the findings of your careful and thoughtful research program on persuasive design and advertisements placement generalize to a cross-cultural design space? Does the decision-making path look the same? We have (roughly) the same brains, don't we? We should notice the same stuff, right?

The Web continues to emerge as a first resource for consumer information. Marketing across cultural boundaries seems to be an efficient approach to going global. Is it optimally effective?

(Maybe we) look different

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 drum.

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 linger.

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?

Toyota Prius

Copyright © 1993-2005 by The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, all rights reserved - complete citation below.

Seeing is believing

Chua, Boland, and Nisbett (2005) applied eye-tracking analysis to explore this question. In their study, Chua and colleagues tracked the eye-movements of American and Chinese graduate students as they looked at a series of pictures like those below.

Each picture had a single foreground object on a realistic background. Participants were first asked simply to look at the picture for 3 seconds and say how much they liked it on a scale of 1-7. After rating the images, participants were asked to look at another set and to quickly say if they had seen the central object in the image before. (This parallels Masuda's same focal-point / different-background recognition task.)

Chau and colleagues' findings are consistent with the earlier work. Americans focused on the central object in the scene sooner and looked at it for longer. They tended to be better at recognizing the central object later. In contrast, Chinese participants took a more balanced approach, looking at more and different parts of the scene.

This difference, while subtle, is important because it shows that our cultural experiences have an impact not only on what we see, but on where we look.

The looking patterns suggest that individuals in different cultures may see things differently because they look at different things.


Masuda, T. & Nisbett, R.E. (2001). "Attending holistically versus analytically: comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 922-934.

Chua, H.F., Boland, J.E., & Nisbett, R.E. (2005). "Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 102(35), 12629-12633.

Figure citation: Volumes 90-102, copyright © 1993-2005 by The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, all rights reserved. Volumes 1-89, copyright as a collective work only; author(s) retains copyright to individual articles.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Verna Dunn

A very interesting article. I keep telling colleagues that cultural differences go deeper than just "they talk and dress funny." It's much more complex, and fascinating.


An intriguing article! I'm a Canadian-born Japanese, born and raised in Canada all my life. After the picture test, I expected my "sight patterns" to resemble that of a North American. I was wrong! My sight pattern resembled my nationality! My parents are first-generation Japanese, and I was brought up in that style. Perhaps the first few years of our lives have a significant impact on how we see things for the rest of our lives?

Stephen Montgomery
Vivid Broadcast

I find this very interesting, particularly when thinking about corporate branding. Logos often consist of company name and a graphic such as a swirl or blob next to the text of the name. From reading this article it leads me to wonder if people from other nationalities would focus on the text or the graphic elements of the logo more?

Keith White, Digital Content

Interesting but how does the gender differences of peripheral vision and acuity impact on this?

Chris Martin
Avenue A | Razorfish

I'm from India and have lived in the Middle East, and I'm pretty certain that the perception of everyday time in Asia is not cyclic. First, Asia covers a wide swath including Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, so try not to make generalizations about Asia. The Middle East and East Asia have very little in common, for example. It is true that Hinduism proposes that eras are cyclic, but not all Hindus take this literally or consider it at all. Each era is vastly longer than a person's lifetime, though, so it doesn't affect the everyday perception of time even among those who do take it literally.

Laura, BCCL, India

Could have added to the article if we had samples (print screens of Web sites) to support the article. Again visual senses prevail over all.

Frank Long

I can across some interesting cultural issues recently during some work we carried out for a large global brand. Specifically we were designing instruction graphics that would need to be understood without translation. We were using icons to indicate the right and wrong way to complete tasks. Our research lead us to discover that western and eastern interpretation of common symbols are widely different. In Asia a circle stands for "good" while the western "tick" has no significance at all. Never underestimate the cultural nuance!

Margaret Menzin
Simmons College

1. The picture you gave at the beginning had no instructions about how long one was to examine it.
2. It was hard to decode some of the objects (clarity).
3. Having asked us to do you a favor by looking at the photo, it would be nice to know how others saw it.


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