It’s not that Western or Chinese web design is better or worse, it’s the fact that they are different and it works best for their respective audience.
To begin to understand why there is this gap between web design in China and the West, we ask the experts to take a deeper look into the cultural and societal differences between the two.
Michael Cheng is the Group Creative Director at Bray Leino Splash, Shanghai specialising in digital marketing and design. Previously, Michael was the Creative Director at BBDO Shanghai working with Fortune 500 clients such as KFC, Bosch and Starbucks. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City with a degree in advertising and design. Here Michael shows us how the web is a very different beast in China.
Five years ago, when I first made the move to China from the States to lead the digital creative department at BBDO, I remember believing I had all the answers. Me, a western educated Chinese-American was going to come to China and “teach” these local Chinese how UX and web design is done right! Then reality hit me like a ton of bricks. Oh, how wrong I was. I quickly learned, through trial and error that things work differently here and that learning experience has been the key to my eventual professional success in China. I’d like to share some of the insights and knowledge that I’ve learned so far.
PART 1: GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CHINESE WEBSITES & USER BEHAVIOUR
• Built for the Masses
China has a huge Internet user-base that is still growing by the day. As of 2016 year end, there were over 700 million users online in China (about 10x the population of the UK!). However, even with that massive figure, over 45% of the population are still not online yet! Add to that an audience with different levels of Internet experience and sophistication, and you can see why Chinese websites have to dumb-down their designs to cater to a wider range of users. Chinese user behaviour and preferences are changing as they go along because the Internet is still evolving and in a constant flux of growth.
% of China's population that have internet access
• More is More
Chinese websites may seem chaotic, visually rich and content heavy to a foreign user. This is because Chinese netizens believe that the more activity and visual stimulants a website has, the more it validates the website's value. This is especially the case for e-Commerce platforms such as Taobao and Jingdong, both of whom try to replicate the feeling of a real, physical market shopping experience. In addition, the liberal use of red (which is good luck in Chinese culture) will have an opposite impression with Westerners, where red is a sign of danger.
JD.com e-commerce platform
• Tabs, Tabs and More Tabs
Due to China’s huge Internet population, Chinese Internet speeds are still comparatively slow when compared to the West, however their government is working diligently on improving the network infrastructure. This is why Chinese websites, especially news portals or other content rich platforms, are extremely link heavy. When users click on links, they will automatically spawn a new tab in Chinese browsers . This way, users can easily scan through content and click on multiple links at a time. While the pages are loading, they can read each tab progressively. It’s a practical means to a functional problem.
Sina.com news portal page
• A Social Way of Life
Chinese born after 1980 are extremely active on social media, even more so than their western counterparts. In the West, social media is just one of many outlets for self-expression. However, since China is a collectivist society, they tend to shy away from communicating their individualism publicly. Instead, they use their online personas as their primary outlet for self-expression and opinions. Chinese Internet users are also quite adaptable and tolerant of UX and web design in general. In most cases, good content and popular social activity trumps design aesthetics.
“If the content is good and there is a lot of activity from other members, I will come back regardless of the UX or design as long as it is functional.” - Chinese millennial
Chinese celebrity Luhan’s Weibo account (Chinese twitter) - Look at the sheer volume of social activity!
Nearly 20x that of a similar tweet by Justin Beiber!
PART 2: VISCERAL & CULTURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CHINESE & WESTERN WEBSITES
From a western lens, a Chinese website may look chaotic and in general, a mess. So what may be some of the reasons it feels this way?
1. Chinese characters are complex and intricate
As opposed to English that consists of a 26 letter alphabet which are combined to create words, Chinese is composed of over 50,000 characters, each one of them conveying a succinct and deep meaning. Think of them as pictographs that cannot be read phonetically, you must memorize each character individually. This may look overwhelming and messy on a website if the user is unable to read Chinese.
2. No Spacing or upper, lower-case lettering
Unlike western languages, Chinese characters don’t only look complex, but there are no upper/lower casing and spacing. This may look stuffy and claustrophobic from a visual standpoint if you aren’t used to it.
3. Limitations on Font Choices
As previously mentioned, since English consists of only 26 letters, a font designer would only have to create 26 unique designs to complete a font set. But because Chinese comprises of over 50,000 characters, each unique, you can see how it would be a very daunting task to create custom, specialised fonts. This in turn limits the variety and diversity of Chinese website typographical designs and layouts.
3. Side-by-Side Comparison
Now let’s take a look at this comparatively in context with both webpages having basically the same layout but only different copy.
So why do the Chinese versions still look messy and complicated even though the layout is practically the same? The main reason is because it’s unfamiliar and you cannot understand it. To a Chinese user, it could look fine and chock full of information. It’s mainly about cultural perspective and familiarity.
Looking back now at my attitude when I first came to China is quite amusing, and my local colleagues and I have a good laugh about it sometimes over dinner. I may have initially come to China with the aspirational intent to change China, but in fact, China changed me.
It’s not that Western or Chinese web design is better or worse, it’s the fact that they are different and it works best for their respective audience. Being mindful of the cultural nuances and understanding why it may influence people’s user behaviour has opened my mind on how to approach design problems objectively to come up with the best solutions for clients based on their preferences and needs.
China is constantly progressing and evolving by the day and their web users embrace change and improvement. A better understanding of each other and respecting these differences is the best way to open up new channels of communication, cooperation and opportunities between China and the West.