UXPA 2016: Understanding culture and psychology for a great UX

Design, Digital, Experience, News, UX

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be told to pack my bag and take the long haul flight to Seattle to attend the major international UX conference UXPA 2016.

UXPA 2016:

This is a big event – with 750 UX researchers, UX designers and other design professionals from all around the world attending. When I returned from sunny Seattle (it was the sunniest week of their year so far!) to the RMA office I shared my key learnings with the team. These are the UX insights, which can be applied immediately in our clients projects.

I want to share the best and of those insights with you:

  1. Why are Asian and Western websites so different?
  2. Faulty by Design: A psychological examination of how our decisions are guided and made

Why are Asian and Western websites so different?

In The Geography of Thought a Chinese student says to author Prof Nisbett:

“You know, the difference between you and me is that I think
the world is a circle and you think it’s a line.

You don’t have to be a UX designer to see that Western and Asian websites are radically different in their structure and information density.  An extreme example is lingscars.com below – a website for a car rental company.


The ‘KISS’ (Keep it Simple) principle, doesn’t seem to be a core one for designers of Asian websites.

Culture & Design

During one of the first presentations at UXPA, Jason Buhle and Hannah Chua exposed a range of existing theories to explain these differences (see slideshare) :

  • The lack of maturity in some of the Asian countries
  • The impact of a better bandwidth in Asia
  • The impact of languages differences (writing density, no capitalisation/italicisation)

But these are all refutable. The presenters explored other possibilities like the fact Asian people generally pay more attention to details. And that, compared to Western subjects, they tend to describe a given picture more holistically taking into account the context, not only the main subject. It has also been demonstrated that Asian people are more influenced by the context, and can handle more information at the same time. Hence the design of websites to reflect these differences: more content in a single page and more text.

These differences are not down to genetics but more to the tendency for culture reinforces itself: some of the drivers probably have their roots in the historical differences between the Western and Asian cultures:

  • Social structures (more interconnected than Western ones)
  • Philosophies (more holistic yin/yang, whole vs. parts)
  • Agriculture (rice culture needed more collaboration)

“A clear implication of these findings for website design is that Asian users see the contextual elements as being useful pieces of information that they can use to interpret the meaning of a more central message or interactive element. By contrast, the same contextual information is likely to seem superfluous or even distracting to the Western user.””

Considering differences when designing globally

These thoughts are directly applicable in my current work. In fact I’m redesigning the payment pages for one of RMA’s clients with an international presence. This presentation has helped me to realise that the variations between different countries are not always only due to country-specific regulations. Some deeper cultural drivers probably explain why we encounter more resistance to our designs in some of the Asian countries.  Our attempt to harmonize the experience around the globe has to take into account these different approaches.


And I will definitely tackle our next designs for international audiences from a different angle – to embrace the circle viewpoint.


Faulty by Design: A psychological examination of our decisions

Human thinking systems can be classified as follows:

  • Feeling and intuition (fast and automatic)
  • Rationale (calculated)

But in fact, 95% of our thinking is driven by the first system: we are optimized for this intuitive “thinking”.

As UX designers, we have to design for the second system. Our goal is to enable people to make better decision for themselves.

Decision making is based on uncertainty

“I know where I am now, and where I want to go” in between there is a lot of uncertainty. And it produces stress. My decision will be influenced by fatigue, culture, value, my level of expertise… The risk level for my decisions also varies a lot, and with them the levels of stress and confidence.

Human decisions are easily biased

This is not due to defaults from the brain itself (the hardware) it’s more the software which fails. It’s a problem of resource: an issue with the load. Our decisions are impacted by the anxiety, and by a range of biases – such as the powerful near-term focus that influences a lot of financial decision making, which makes it really hard to plan for a long term future. Other biases include the optimistic bias, anchoring bias, the use of heuristics and simple rules or the availability bias.

Efficiency and load

The load availability bias can be exemplified by the “recency” effect. For example if I’ve heard of a plane crash recently, I’ll be more afraid of that. Even if the probabilities are much lower than a death by car accident. Another example is the earthquake/flood insurances that go up AFTER an earthquake/flood.

Our role as designers is to avoid using these biases to trick our users and to provide designs that help to reduce their effects on users’ decisions.

Anxiety, can we design to keep it in check?

One of the good design patterns is to limit the options and to control the disclosure so the load will be manageable. The use of filters can help a lot in this case.

To control the “Loss aversion” (with the pain of loss being twice as strong as joy of a gain) a good tip is to frame things in a positive way (e.g. 80% beef vs. saying 20% fat). Alternatively you can motivate by offering immediate rewards – for example a weight-loss program based on a double cash or quit if you stop loosing weight.

A classic way of packaging prices, and providing a recommended choice often takes advantage of some of our biases, and then influences our decisions… sometimes for the benefit of the customer and sometimes for the benefit of the industry.

So an interesting question is: “is nudging good?”

The presenter was more an advocate of letting the customers make their own choice without pushing.

Emotional Picture

The presenters also recommended to keep in mind we design for real people (not for mythological rational logical agents), to consider all these behaviours in our interaction with users in the fields; and to design transparent solutions that allow people to make decisions for themselves.

One could also argue that we can use some ‘dark’ UX patterns (see a recent RMA blog post on this topic) to incline users to choose a preferred choice if this is better for them (e.g enrolment to pensions ticked by default).


I had a great time at UXPA 2016. I made some good conference buddies and came away with these insights that I hope will give you some food for thought and help the RMA team to continue to deliver the best experiences for users.

Well done to the UXPA team and the volunteers for the great organisation, food and location. Seattle is awesome!

And finally…

Should you ever go to Seattle I think the next few touristy activities are definitely worth a visit:

  • Pike market (yum, clam chowder)
  • The Gum wall is a must-see: cool and gross at the same time!
  • The iconic Space needle and its panoramic view
  • The small but funny aquarium!