We get a lot of enquiries from multinational marketing managers on how to design websites for a Chinese audience. It seems the cluttered, long pages of Chinese web portals have given foreigners the idea that there is a uniquely Chinese way of browsing the internet. Do Chinese inherently prefer an abundance of choice over minimalist simplicity? Is this clutter just unsophisticated design? Or an exciting depth of content to explore?
The problem in China starts with the complexity of the written language. Many designers agree that it is easier to make a visually pleasing design in English rather than in Chinese.
Jane Ngai, UX director at Douban says, “Dealing with Chinese characters is more challenging than with Western typefaces, because there is a lack of development in Chinese fonts, and Chinese characters are much more visually complex.”
Chenyin Pan, digital strategist at Fireworks, has linked the Chinese ease with verbose, text-filled environments back to Red Army propaganda, where walls all across China were plastered with rousing revolutionary sayings.
Emerging from a historical period of scarcity, clutter is not only comfortingly familiar but may even be appealing for low-income audiences. It’s certainly true that the abundant clutter of a bazaar or flea market is exciting. It gives you the feeling that there is a lot of entertainment value to be had in exploring and digging out a bargain. As Ngai puts it, “Chinese people like 'busy' 热闹. They like to see many people and many products for sale when they are shopping. But to a western eye, it can be overwhelming, with too many products and promotions.”
There are other good reasons why Chinese web portals are covered in text links. In the early days of the Chinese internet, poor infrastructure and slow download speeds encouraged web designers to favor text and small thumbnails over large visuals or Flash. At the same time, Chinese language search results were not accurate nor reliable, so users preferred to click on index links instead of using the search box. But as every page took a long time to load, it made sense to cram more text links onto the landing page to minimize the number of clicks. It may have been ugly, but it worked, and that’s what people got used to.
When it comes to UX design, practicality often trumps aesthetics. If a majority of the users have gotten used to one way of doing things, they will prefer that to having to learn a new system. What a Westerner sees as confusing clutter could actually be a familiar menu of options to a Chinese user, with favorite links already mentally mapped out from repeated daily use.
Today, China’s net infrastructure is vastly improved, with high adoption of smartphones and users migrating to fast 3G and 4G services. As China goes mobile, new minimalist approaches are emerging, and in many cases, Chinese design is leading the world. Chinese apps like WeChat, Didi, and Alipay outperform their western peers in ease of use and innovative new features. Xiaomi’s OS, Miui, is simpler and easier to use than most Android interfaces. Whereas five years ago it was hard to find UX professionals, the rise of Chinese internet companies has helped fuel the growth of the UX industry. Now there are many full time UX professionals and dedicated UX conferences such as UXPA China’s User Friendly event and IXDC.
Many of the UX leaders today are women. Whereas the early Chinese internet was built by men with computer-science and engineering degrees, the new generation of UX practitioners includes more women with multimedia and design backgrounds. Diversity is good for any industry, and this is one reason we’re seeing more elegant and intuitive design. The other reason is China’s economic ascendance. As more people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they have the time and means to be more discerning about design and brand experiences.
It is interesting to note that Chinese mobile apps still tend to be more multifunctional than their western peers. In the west, there is an obsession with keeping things lean and focused. Foursquare even spun off its popular check-in feature as a separate app called Swarm, splitting its user base. While western users appreciate the simplicity of one app that does one thing really well, China it seems, still believes that more is more.
For example, just compare WeChat with WhatsApp. Jill Shih, Senior UX Director at Cheetah Mobile, explains: “Chinese interface design is undoubtedly trending towards western design principles. But apps like WeChat are winning because they offer a seamless, total user experience. They solve more problems in the daily lives of Chinese users. It’s here that mobile UX requires deep local insight as well as design sense. Because mobile devices are much more intimate, designers need to create emotional connection with the users beyond usability, beyond interface design.”
A lot of foreign brands are making a big mistake, because they only translate the language for the China market, but not the design or customer experience. It’s here that an integrated agency can really help clients to architect the entire brand experience based on local consumer insights and a strong brand idea, instead of blindly starting from a global design template.
Joni Ngai, vice chair at I-COM China agrees. “The value proposition and business model must be structured and designed for the China market specifically. Taobao and eBay seem very similar on the surface, but their value propositions are very different. Whereas eBay’s auction model was about outbidding other buyers, Taobao’s value proposition is a marketplace where you can get things at the lowest cost.”
Taobao was successful in creating a superior customer experience based on a deeper understanding of Chinese consumer behavior. In a market awash with counterfeit and low-quality goods, Chinese customers love to use Taobao’s real-time chat tool, Aliwangwang, to establish trust with the seller and haggle the price down. Whereas western buyers are reluctant or feel embarrassed to negotiate on price, Chinese buyers feel it’s necessary to haggle, to build confidence that they’ve made a smart purchase.
Ultimately, it's culture, not just function, that informs good UX design. Ensure your customer experience is designed specifically for Chinese needs. Make sure it is enjoyable and easy to engage with your brand, to purchase and use your products.
Eugene Chew is chief digital officer at JWT Shanghai