Main Content


How to tap into different thinking styles

In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, as creative professionals it is not unusual to find ourselves being given the huge responsibility of designing experiences for cultures and contexts which are greatly different from our own.

Although it is tempting to assume that beyond the fluff of associations and semiotics we as humans all fundamentally have the same hardwiring, science is increasingly showing that our background determines how we process and perceive information. There are no hard and fast rules for creating the ultimate cross-cultural experience, but tapping into some of these findings can help to challenge our assumptions and ensure we are aware of our biases.


Tip 1: Go with the flow on repetitive behaviours 

Recent advances in neuroscience have finally broken down the stereotyped analogy of the brain as a computer. Instead, science shows it is much more useful to think of the brain as a flexible muscle with the power to grow, strengthen and develop its abilities based on repeated experience.

This means that our habits and lifestyle choices can physically change how we think on an organic level, creating neural pathways which dictate the type of things we find easy to grasp or difficult to do. For example, whether or not someone grows up in a Western urban environment with harsh geometric lines in the architecture has been shown to impact their accuracy at judging distances.

Students in cultures with non-alphabetic writing systems comprehend visual instructions more quickly due to their habitual process of decoding visual cues. The lesson is, paying attention to the type of activities that cultures repeatedly do can help us uncover communication preferences that can be easily piggybacked onto. Conversely, avoiding styles which are new and strange can prevent us making taxing demands on people’s brains – decreasing both the pleasure of the interaction and the likelihood of people understanding our message.

Tip 2: Map out your users’ expectations

To be able to survive in the prehistoric past, our ancestors developed the mental toolkit to process new facts and situations effectively, ensuring that the quick decisions they made had optimal outcomes.

This requirement has given us the ability to store a vast encyclopaedia in our head better known in UX circles as mental models – a set of interconnected logical facts and assumptions about how the world works, derived from both our experiences and the knowledge handed down to us. We use these models to make intuitive guesses about how new technology and situations will work. They influence where we look for information and the type of behaviours we perform when we see a cue. At the outset of any design project, doing participant research, such as sorting cards, and tree exercises helps to uncover expectations and assumptions about how information sits together and the range of interactions that seem possible. For example, it is rumoured that Google introduced the searchable navigation bar after recognising users repeatedly confused the search bar and the navigation bar.


Tip 3: Pay attention to where people pay attention 

One of the biggest differences in thinking style can be seen in the tendency between East and West to look for information in different places. Western users tend to adopt an analytical way of thinking, which involves understanding a system by its parts and focusing on discrete objects and people. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by focusing more on patterns and relationships between objects.

This impacts where we pay attention – for example, Westerners tend to focus on the foreground and on objectives when scanning information, where people from Eastern cultures, by comparison, are much more attuned to information encoded in the background. Companies like IKEA use this insight to present their online products in the most attractive light – using a higher proportion of contextual imagery in the East, knowing this influences how people perceive their product.

thinkingTip 4: Why choice isn’t always a good thing

Brand experience is a hot topic in marketing right now, where there is a growing recognition that understanding customers’ preferences and goals is the key to commercial success. Empowering users through choice and personalisation has been a big design trend, partly in response to this thought. However, there is much evidence to suggest that placing undue emphasis on this style of interaction might not result in universal benefits for the brand across the board.  

Although the ability to choose freely is central to a person’s identity in much of the West, this ideal isn’t as important for most other countries. Studies have shown that Americans are twice as attuned to the act of making a choice as people in India, who are much less likely to report positive emotions when given a choice. At time of budget constraints with tough decisions to be made about experience improvements, it is important we sense check our understanding of consumer motivations and preferences for ethnocentrism.

Tip 5: Remembering that culture doesn’t respect borders 

Although geographical borders have created groupings of people with similar shared identities, it’s important to remind ourselves that there is always more diversity within any one nation than between itself and its neighbours. For example, younger people who grew up on technology have been shown to typically have shorter attention spans with higher preferences for visual and interactive information.

On the other end of the scale, the stress caused by poverty even within modern industrial societies has been shown to decrease cognitive function up to 16 IQ points, meaning that these individuals require experiences with extra simplicity.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn is that to ensure we are fully aware of our audience we must take the time to understand them, the context they’re in, their needs and their reality.

About: Rebecca Faulkner

Rebecca is resident behavioural specialist at Rufus Leonard. Since joining in 2015 she has been instrumental in helping their clients to understand the importance of knowing their customers inside out. A regular speaker at Rufus Leonard’s Psychology of Brand Experience events and a key member of the strategy team working with Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Mail.

Rufus Leonard are members of the Design Business Association.

Image credits: © Rufus Leonard 


We use cookies to help improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you agree to our use of cookies.