Let’s begin with a quote from the research article by Jean-Claude Usunier and Nicolas Roulin published in the ‘International Journal of Business Communication’ in 2010:
When companies have a definite home-country, with homogeneous employees in terms of nationality and culture, all of them speaking the same language that conveys cultural codes and particular communication patterns, Website design and content are likely to be influenced by their communication style.
To elaborate: website design reflects the communication style of those who develop it and those who consume its content. A foreigner with little knowledge of the local culture, language, and communication patterns will most likely experience all sorts of troubles trying to navigate those websites, should they even be translated into their language. The structure will seem convoluted, the navigation — unintuitive, and the overall design — terrible. But only in the eyes of a foreigner.
Frustration, for the lack of better terms, is a good way of explaining what the foreign users may experience when browsing Chinese websites: politely calling them ‘busy’ and ‘complicated’, they often believe that those designs come straight from the 90-s, that the consumers are not design-oriented, and the companies are not ready to invest into revamping their products. It’s widely assumed that Chinese users prefer dense information, busy pages, flashy ads, that they don’t care about usability and interface as long as the content is valid and rich.
These assumptions are often based solely on the author’s perception of usability. Moreover, since most of the foreign visitors can’t read Chinese, their judgement is highly influenced by the aesthetics of the evaluated website, not its usability. It may turn a disaster for a thriving business, should the stakeholder or a designer fall for the same bias.
Designing for the Chinese market demands a lot — it requires a mindset supported by a good knowledge of the history and the rules, clear from common misconceptions and myths. In order to build this mindset, let’s first have a look at how the Chinese Internet came to be, what shaped it, and what’s driving its development now.
Understanding Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet is not as isolated as some may think.
It proudly sustains the status of the most censored local Internet in the world with its expanding surveillance, restricted freedom of speech, and tightening regulations that not only wipe out all the undesirable content but limit the control the owners have over their platforms, their appearance, and functionality. Chinese Firewall successfully blocks most of the popular foreign websites and services, and a new generation of netizens may sometimes not even know what Google is.
The Chinese Internet is home to over 900 million users browsing around 5 million websites. It has been rapidly developing since the introduction of the global web to China in 1994, and its history is rich and fascinating. It first users — those lucky 600 000 netizens in 1998 that would go to an Internet cafe in Beijing to read magazines, start an online business before it was even a thing, or send their first instant message with a newly established QQ — would find new ‘sense of freedom’ on the Internet, a place where they could express themselves freely and openly.
The early days were the days when the Chinese Internet was a realm of the University forums: early adopters would spend hours chatting with other strangers, and places like SMTH BBS were open to anyone willing to share their stories or ask for an opinion. Bulletin Boards shaped behavioural patterns and form digital identities — people would use BBS as a search engine, Q&A service, microblog — all-in-one.
Shuimu Qinghua BBS played a role in my life that my teachers and even my parents could not compare to. Here, there was never an unresolvable problem. There were always people ready to help, there were always people who needed your help.
Despite the heavy regulations and censorship, there were times when access to foreign media and services from Mainland was less restricted too — despite ‘sporadic unavailability’ to the Chinese users that Google experienced in 2002, Western services could at least make it to the market: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube operated in Mainland until 2009, Instagram, DuckDuckGo, Viber were available until 2014. Most recent crackdowns — from 2017 until today — wiped the market clean.
On 14 August 2009, Weibo — ‘a copycat of Twitter’ — was launched by Sina Corporation right after Facebook, Twitter, and some other Western services had been blocked in Mainland. The new microblogging service quickly became popular, and in just 2 years, over 100 million users joined Weibo. It took Twitter 5 years to reach the same numbers — and Weibo didn’t stop there.
Some 10 years ago it was quite easy to come across a website that would look exactly like its Western competitor banned from operating in Mainland. Literally, every popular Western product had a ‘Chinese analogue’ — whether it was Youku replacing the blocked YouTube, Baidu and Sogou instead of Google, or WeChat that quickly became the default messenger and grew into a heavy monster with its micro apps, wallet, and thousands of features sometimes hidden so well they can only be discovered by accident.
However, as the Mainland start-ups grew, they deviated more and more from their original state — whether by introducing new features, revamping the look-and-feel, or simply trying a different approach. China has quickly become a country of innovators, industry leaders that set the trends for the rest of the world to follow, and design reflects it just as well as the numbers in the annual reports.
Internet penetration rate is growing just as fast: about 64% of the population now have access to the global web, with an average download speed of around 41.91Mbit/s (fixed broadband network). Slow Internet, outdated software, lack of good reception — these problems are not yet gone but rapidly going extinct, along with the era of copycat giants.
Embracing cultural differences
Chinese websites are more complex than the Western ones: moreover, they’re designed and anticipated to be more complex, and there’s a scientific explanation for that. Although globalisation (and the Web as its product and tool) was about to create a borderless world, the cultural boundaries still thrive today.
In the 1950-s an anthropologist Edward T. Hall suggested that all cultures could be divided into two major groups based on the style in which they communicate. Hall noticed that Scandinavians, Germans, the Swiss tend to communicate through explicit statements, while Chinese and Japanese often include body language, tone of voice, and even silence. The first group was called ‘low-context cultures’, the latter — ‘high-context’.
Communication in high-context cultures heavily relies on non-verbal aspects, the context of the conversation, behavioural patterns, symbolism — indirect communication plays a crucial role in the conversation, and the same message may have different meanings depending on the situation and the context.
By using scales meant to conceptualise the difference between HC and LC communication, [professor William B.] Gudykunst identified HC communication to be indirect, ambiguous, maintaining of harmony, reserved and understated. In contrast, LC communication was identified as direct, precise, dramatic, open, and based on feelings or true intentions.
Obviously enough, these differences heavily impact the Web: while in a face-to-face communication the context is set by verbal and paraverbal cues, the Internet page has to use various tricks to create the context or compensate for the lack of thereof. As a result, visitors from the low-context cultures may consider Chinese websites complex and busy.
While designers from low-context cultures lean towards minimalism, those on the other side of the spectrum do their best to manoeuvre between popular design trends and user expectations: for instance, Chinese users expect the web page to not only be aesthetically pleasing but also informative, with ‘real meat’. Information on the page plays an important role in creating and adding to the context, and higher density is meant to provide the consumers with a seamless browsing experience.
This doesn’t mean, however, that complexity equals bad design: quite the opposite, complex websites are expected to properly sort out their content, create intuitive navigation, engage and entertain its visitors. A website doesn’t have to shock its user with the long unreadable texts and flashy images, but excessive use of white space, out of context visuals, and abstract sentences may turn the consumer away.
It’s not hard to notice that the left website contains a bit more information that the right one: it almost fits 3 venues on one screen, uses the bright colour palette to highlight the features, and although the overall brand awareness is preserved, the two look and feel quite different from one another.
One thing worth mentioning is that the Chinese Airbnb doesn’t hide its search bar behind the magnifying glass. Some studies suggest that Chinese users may struggle to identify the magnifying glass as a symbol for search — perhaps the same way as Europeans often see the Folder icon as nothing but a yellow rectangle: simply because ‘it doesn’t suggest the filing practice’ for them.
Communication differences, however, only explain a certain part of the topic. Sociology’s got a little something to add to the topic. In 1980 sociologist and researcher Gert Hofstede suggested the 6-D model of national culture that attempted to map out ‘six basic issues that society needs to come to term with in order to organize itself’.
This framework widely accepted by specialists and praised by management practitioners analysed most of the world’s countries based on 6 ‘dimensions of culture’: Power Distance, Collectivism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long-term Orientation, Indulgence.
Despite having its limitations, Hofstede’s model may easily be applied to design: Usabilla, for instance, studied it a few years ago comparing McDonald’s websites all over the world and although the screenshots are a bit outdated, the point Usabilla made still stands.
Perception of power and collectivist mindset influence the way the people consume information and interact with the products. Visitors from societies with a low power distance (those whose members are constantly trying to equalize the distribution of power) tend to be more independent and expect to be left to make up their own mind, while those from societies with a high power distance rely on authorities and expect to be guided.
Similar to that, individualists act upon their desires, take initiative, and explore, while collectivists rely on the others’ opinions, follow the lead.
The way those differences reflect on behavioural patterns is quite impressive. In 2015 Journal of Service Science and Management published an article called ‘Effect of Online Reviews on Consumer Purchase Behavior’. The authors analysed over 400 shops’ reviews on Taobao to understand the effect the testimonials have on consumer purchase behaviour and came to a conclusion:
The results show that the influential factors of online reviews on consumer buying behavior include positive reviews, description rating, picture reviews, additional reviews and cumulative reviews.
Much like on the BBS forums back in the late 1990-s, the users tend to rely on the other’s opinions and trust the information they find. Usabilla in their research suggests: since Chinese users value community over individuals and tend to follow the masses, adding testimonials, popular categories, and trends could enhance the user engagement and help the user browse the pages and make choices.
Hiring a competent translator and preparing a mirror version of the existing website in Chinese should never be part of a strategy. Simply translating an existing product and launching it on a local market is a recipe for disaster.
Website design and content are likely to be influenced by your style.
Chinese Internet users consume information differently: although they may not care much about the consistency of design and the appealing look, they do care a lot about usability, accessibility, and performance.
Rethink the structure
Website navigation is arguably the most important part of the product, and adapting it to the expectations of the users may pose a challenge. Chinese websites often feature massive horizontal menus, filters, and adaptive search blocks that work as a site map and a guide.
In a way, this reflects the way the users search for the content: partly, as a legacy of the forums’ days but mostly because of how the language works that limits the search functionality. Typing in Chinese isn’t slow nor hard as some may think but making the search engine provide accurate results is challenging.
It doesn’t mean that ‘the more the better’ principle should apply. Cluttered navigation will most likely confuse the user whilst well-structured menu will guide the visitor and land them on an exact page they were looking for.
Revamp the look
Rethinking the UI may be a crucial part of the localisation process. It has nothing to do with refreshing the look though. An individual coming from a low-context culture may underestimate the meaning of symbols and non-verbal signs but for the high-context cultures where the conversation is less direct no detail is unimportant.
Take colours, for instance: in Chinese culture, every colour has its special meaning and the values attached to those colours may as well be different from the other cultures. Red, for instance, stands for good fortune and joy: a red envelope with some money inside — 红包 (hóngbāo) — is a common gift in Chinese culture. At the same time, although green means money and wealth, some websites and apps may choose to use red to indicate financial growth and green to show losses.
Global design trends reach China quite fast these days: gradients and vibrant colours, animations and transitions, dark mode. Since the majority of the users are mobile, it’s important to have a fast, reliable, and well-designed mobile version of the desktop website.
Typography, on the other hand, remains a huge issue: with a relatively narrow selection of available fonts, designers suffer trying to find an appropriate font and usually end up using one of the safe system fonts for dynamic texts.
Adjust to the legal requirements
Internet in Mainland is overregulated and every local website has to pass a certain amount of checks before and after it’s launched. For instance, every website owner has to apply for an ICP — an Internet Content Provider — a license that allows the website to operate in Mainland China.
Chinese search engines tend to discriminate against websites hosted overseas, not to mention that it won’t be possible to host a website in Mainland without an ICP, so acquiring before the launch and placing an ICP license number in a footer after is a mandatory step. Local police bureau may also request the owner to apply for a licence and include its number in the footer.
Also, note that the owner is personally responsible for identifying the users and reporting all illegal content on their website. In a nutshell, this means that every website with a registration form must validate the user’s real name, monitor all activity — whether automatically or with the help of an army of censors. Usually, websites allow registering using a Mainland phone number or WeChat. Emails are not common and can’t be easily verified so some services don’t bother including email as a login option.
To sum up
In a span of 20 years, Chinese Internet has grown into a powerful digital entity — an integral part of the global web and a thing in itself at once. In the eye of a foreigner, local web pages may look bulky and messy, but in reality, they’re quite often well-designed and well-thought.
Designing for the Chinese digital market is a serious topic with lots of aspects to cover that wouldn’t fit in one article. A UI/UX specialist would most likely want to study, for instance, how the Chinese users expect to see the amount of discount on a web page or why voice search feature has grown so huge.
In order to succeed, it’s important to build a proper mindset and do some background study. Common misconceptions and myths will only lead to failure, and so will stubborn attempts to do things ‘the same way as always’. Learning is the only key to success.
Although this article was initially meant to only cover my personal experience as a foreign UX designer working with the local companies in China, it turned out to be way more exciting to dive deep into the real research and have a wider look at the issue from a different, less subjective point of view.
I would love to continue exploring the topic further and if you are willing to contribute, please let me know.
Yang, G. (2012). Chinese Internet? History, Practice, and Globalization. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(1), 49–54.
Mo, Z., Li, Y.-F. and Fan, P. (2015) Effect of Online Reviews on Consumer Purchase Behavior. Journal of Service Science and Management, 8, 419–424.
Wurtz, E., 2005. Intercultural Communication on Web sites: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Web sites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), pp.274–299.
Usunier, J.-C., & Roulin, N. (2010). The Influence of High- and Low-Context Communication Styles On the Design, Content, and Language of Business-To-Business Web Sites. The Journal of Business Communication (1973), 47(2), 189–227.
Agodzo, Divine. (2015). Six Approaches to Understanding National Cultures: Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions.
Cheng, Y., & Nielsen, J. (2016, November 6). Are Chinese Websites Too Complex? Retrieved May 15, 2020, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/china-website-complexity.
Bodony, R. (2013, April 16). How To Design For A Cross-Cultural User Experience (part 1/2) — The latest Voice of Customer and CX trends: Usabilla Blog. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from https://usabilla.com/blog/designing-for-a-cross-cultural-user-experience-part1/