With almost two thirds of China’s 720 million Internet users under the age of 30, competition to attract attention and understand the latest trends is a major priority. While younger users are primarily attracted to the entertainment value of the Internet, web design budgets can be limited leading to a situation where local businesses and groups are looking for the highest level of attraction for the lowest cost. This has led to a movement of website creation that is radically different from the Western standard.
Neon coloured anime style video game advertisements saturate various areas of the screen, vying for space with advertisements for make up, dating, and video streaming. Crazily coloured text scrolls across the screen while static words blend into the background due to their size and colour. However, what is painful for the foreign marketer and digital designer can be eye appealing and intuitive for the modern Chinese user. Thus, to successfully communicate one’s goals (whether personal or financial) to Chinese Internet users, one must reexamine traditional digital aesthetics and perhaps forcefully turn them on their head.
The first obvious difference between Chinese and Western websites is the busy homepage presenting lots of information. Chinese consumers are accustomed to homepages that present a large, sometimes overwhelming, amount of information as opposed to designs that guide the user on how to navigate to consumer relevant content. As Chinese users are used to this format, they are less sensitive to information overload than their Western cousins. While the content heavy approach may cause Western users to abandon a website, and thus not consider the company or group trustworthy, Chinese users believe that if a page does not have enough content or information, the site has less value and is more easily dismissed as unreliable. Despite the old adage about “less is more” being the main motto of global digital design, content heavy sites remain popular among Chinese Internet users.
In the physical world, traditional open markets that to this day are a major staple in Chinese life mean that moving from tarp to kiosk to hole in the wall shop for a few simple items is a basic facet of life for both modern urbanite and traditional countryfolk. In this way, consumers can easily and quickly scan available goods and determine their individual worth. When this is transformed for the digital market place, the same experience is difficult if not impossible to translate. Dan Harris of Harris and Moure International Law Firm, attended a business round table discussion where representatives from Taobao, Yihaodian, and Nielson Research spoke about doing digital business in China. He commented, “At one point the moderator (a Chinese American whose name I have forgotten) noted how ‘chaotic’ Chinese websites look as compared to the clean line minimalist approach of American website. The participants all laughed, agreed, and then explained. ‘Look at Chinese brick and mortar stores… They are colourful and chaotic’”. Popular elements of such on Chinese websites are the flash-based banners and animated advertisements that are undeniably eye catching. Online advertising in China has undergone a major boom in business which has led to Chinese companies emphasising digital designs that capitalise on additional revenue from the unavoidable online hoardings. Some of these advertisements are designed so obviously to be upfront that clicking the sometimes scrolling graphic away can be more difficult than finding the information that you need. David Wei, former CEO of Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company, spoke to CNN about how international standards just do not apply in all case; “When I worked for Alibaba, I cleaned the homepage to an international standard. It doesn’t work.”
All the Colours
The use of colour in Chinese websites is a complex and, at times perplexing, phenomenon common also in print and digital marketing, especially compared to Western digital advertising strategies. Neon, flashing hyperlinks in various shades of red, yellow, and orange on deep blue or bright white backgrounds were only part of my personal headaches while doing academic and personal research while in China. During holidays, especially Golden Week or the Lunar New Year, signs for sales in malls and boutiques prove that there is no such thing as too many shades of yellow or red. While these trends culturally have value and make sense, international customers may have more questions than appreciation for such tactics. Contrasting colour schemes are a common strategy to attract visitor attention, sacrificing intuitive usability for a solid investment in commanding the consumer’s line of vision.
Flashing embellishments and decorative java are a quintessential aspect of advertising a website’s worth. Everything from teenage blogs to corporate landing pages utilise an alarming amount of java and flash to draw the eye goodness knows where. Some of the more popular tools amongst Chinese web designers are background music, falling images of snowflakes, flowers, or money depending on the type of website and time of year. For instance, WeChat’s use of falling hearts on Valentines’ Day that is launched by the immediate typing and sending of valentines’ wishes to a sweetheart. To Western eyes, the on screen mania of flashing graphics and dancing icons are unnecessary and distracting; however, Chinese users are not bothered by such designs. While studies have shown that Western users actively avoid elements of web design that are similar to advertising, such as flashing graphics and decorative moving elements, Chinese users more readily accept pop-up advertising, with local businesses being more inclined to utilise pop-up advertising.
Chinese characters are slightly larger in size and are denser in their individual meanings. Thus, advertisers can utilise scrolling Chinese characters to provide even more data to viewers looking for all of their required information at first glance. Thus, flashing graphics and scrolling text serve as extremely useful tools for businesses trying to inform their target markets.
Scanning and Linking
As Chinese mobile users outnumber their desktop owning counterparts, time saving mobile web tools such as QR codes function as ways for users to quickly accumulate information on the go. WeChat’s scanning function allows users to easily add each other as contacts without the effort of verbally sharing a username or searching the entire database for a user. Making information sharing more mobile friendly is the main objective for designing website associated and stand alone mobile applications. Access to higher bandwidth through mobile networks will also allow for higher amounts of text information and animated visuals. With these rapid changes in web design, domestic and international companies cannot afford to be complacent in their design and marketing.
Hyperlinking and the constant never-ending chain of new tabs or windows are further aspects of Chinese web design that seems to have no detrimental effect on local users but to the international community appears cluttered and unnecessary. Yet, the hyperlinking new tab phenomenon exists for a reason. While access to higher bandwidth seems inevitable, this does not negate the cost and current limits of existing networks. New tabs are a short term solution to creating larger networks without the cost or bandwidth, allowing users to surf elsewhere while still being able to refer back to the homepage.
Anyone who has attempted to learn Chinese, looked at the signs in Chinatown for more than 5 seconds, or is inked with a tacky tattoo that is supposed to explain a positive part of their attitude, knows that Chinese is a complex and dense language. Web designers have the difficult task of creating visually pleasing products in a language that is less flexible than romance languages such as English. Jan Ngai, Douban’s User Experience Director explains the phenomenon; “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”. Furthermore, due to China’s fairly recent entrance into the international economy, Chinese web design is in its infancy, yet is developing as fast as the economy. While keyboards are alphabetised (unfamiliar to Chinese language speakers born before the Internet age) and website user interfaces have evolved on the basis of a click and find principle, with text and images as opposed to search and discover system that is more familiar to non-Chinese web users, there is a countermovement growing where Chinese users are now putting more emphasis on seeking exact contact as opposed to snappy visuals.
As advanced as the Internet and electronic communication are, widespread literacy is a recent phenomenon as is use of written simplified pinyin. Thus Internet user experience focuses on providing users extra help and comfort with site navigation. Due to China’s long history of haggling and questionable quality in the marketplace, consumers need a high level of confidence in the product before making a purchase. In response to this need, web designers include the greatest amount of information possible as well as an excessive amount of visual cues and technical explanations to ensure consumer faith and satisfaction. The design process can also be challenging for Chinese web and graphic designers due to the limited font options; Chinese language fonts require that each character be individually designed which is both time consuming and expensive. To circumvent the lack of diversity amongst font typefaces, web designers utilise creative graphics and nonstandard typefaces to introduce more differentiation.
Internet mobility is so important in China that the QR code is a standard feature of both print and digital advertisements, for example, walking the streets, one can scan information from a bus stop poster advertising a new sale at a mega mall. The infrastructure for instant communication and information exchange is improving at a rapid rate that will allow more users to enjoy greater than 4G speeds (China Mobile and Ericsson recently performed field tests of 5G in Wuxi). Increasing preferences for mobility are inspiring minimalist approaches to app design that companies from around the world are adopting. WeChat, Didi, and Alipay outperform western competitors in terms of usability and innovation.
The rise of User Experience Professionals, as a fulltime profession, can in great part be attributed to Chinese Internet companies and web design. Chinese apps perform better in terms of being more multifunctional due to their audience wanting more information in one place, while Western app developers tend to believe more in the idea of an app doing one or a few things really well. Talking to Eugene Chew, Jill Shih, senior user experience director at Cheetah Mobile explains the situation with comparison between WeChat and western designed communication apps such as WhatsApp, “Chinese interface design is undoubtedly trending towards western design principles. But apps such as 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 user experience 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”.
Clutter is comforting and familiar for a generation of Internet users coming from a time of scarcity into an age of plenty. For low-income but financially savvy audiences, it is an indicator of quality and reliability. Furthermore, the satisfaction of discovering a bargain either in the noisy stalls of the inner city or through the coupon offered through an online sale is a satisfying feeling for any shopper. The challenge is transferring this feeling from the open markets of the streets to the digital warehouses of the modern shopper. As Jan Ngai of Douban explained to Campaign Asia, “Chinese people like ‘busy’. They like to see many people and many products for sale when they are shopping. Yet, to a Western eye, it can be overwhelming, with too many products and promotions”. The value of one renminbi is well appreciated by the price sensitive consumers of China and for them time is not money. Furthermore, the importance of the cultural attachment of colour cannot be underestimated in creating a successful marketing campaign either digitally or in print. A green hat in Ireland may be considered lucky; in China the same item symbolises marital troubles.
Copying existing models of successful digital design and marketing in the West does not ensure success in the East. Adaptation is key in making it in the Middle Kingdom that has evolved from the sick man of Asia to the developing dragon of the East. Foreign brands make the mistake of only translating the language of the content as opposed to also paying attention to the cultural context of the image and usability of the product and buying process. Taobao and Ebay are of the strongest examples of the importance of translating the user experience, as Joni Ngai, vice chair at I-COM China explains, “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”.
Ebay is clean, with little emphasis on customer support communication, and slow in the delivery of content and product. Taobao, on the other hand, is messy with a centralised real-time chat tool. In a market that was indifferent to the lack of quality available, Taobao provided such and made themselves accountable through easily accessible customer support and high level of content. Culture and content need to go hand in hand in order to ensure success in the meeting room, flagship store and digital market place.
It is worth rembering that the first websites in Western countries had much in common with those in today’s China; remember falling snowflakes and fire? The inescapable need for mobility with the stripped down app user interfaces required of it may well be be a key driver going forward in bringing Chinese online design into the 21st century.
This article was first published in The Nanjinger Magazine, October 2016 issue. If you would like to read the whole magazine, please follow this link.