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Design UX

Designing digital experiences for China

China is among the fastest developing economies of the last four decades. With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, almost 30 percent of the Internet users come from this country.

A lot of Western companies want to start operating in this promising market. The questions that arise are: what do design departments need to take into consideration to make their experiences fit cross-culturally? Is cultural bias an issue when designing a user interface targeting this market? What about the sites blocked in China?

Limitations

There are several limitations that need to be considered when making an interface fit cross-culturally. These limitations can be linguistic, technical or even cultural.

Lack of emphasis
Chinese and other non-latin languages don’t have italics or capital letters. This limitation reduces the styling opportunities for adding visual hierarchy and organize information.

Lack of web fonts
Pretty much related with the lack of emphasis, the fact that Chinese alphabet has more than 4 thousand characters makes it very expensive for designers to create different styles of typefaces. As as side note, because of the typeface complexity, the minimum font-size suggested is 12px.

Consumer behaviour
Before making a purchase decision, Chinese users require a high level of assurance provided by lengthy descriptions and technical specifications. They will be less likely to be persuaded by catchy headlines or pretty graphics.

Large number of old devices still in use
Although China represents Apple’s second home for the iPhone, there’s still a high level of adoption of legacy technology in corporate environments.

Western perception about the Chinese web

Daniel Szuc, an Australian UX professional established in China, talks about the myths of Chinese design patterns in an interview held by Desktop Mag. “We sometimes hear that, for example, mainland Chinese users like busier homepages or have a higher tolerance for poor design,” he says. “This is largely a myth, we have discovered that Chinese users appreciate simple goal-driven design as much as Western users do”. However, he asserts they may be willing to spend more time in order to achieve their goal as they do seem to demonstrate more patience when a poor experience is delivered.

Chui Chui Tan, UX director at CX Partners also debunks many of the popular myths around Asian web design:

“Chinese patterns are complicated”
This is due to the fact that Westerners don’t understand what they’re looking at. Characters are unfamiliar and people tend to think designs are cluttered and messy. However, a look at the BBC News Chinese version, will prove that designs can have a tidy layout while maintaining the same amount of information.

“Pages must have lots of links”
Typing in Chinese on an alphabet-based keyboard is a hard task to achieve, designers suggest that making the text clickable contributes to establish a site more usable. However, with the widely use of Pinyin, Chinese characters can be easily written with the help of traditional western keyboards.

“Links open in new windows”
This is for two reasons: Chinese users tend to click on different hyperlinks while browsing on a certain page. This behavior helps to reduce the technical limitations that some geographical areas experience in terms of connection speeds.

“They prefer busy, over tidy and clean pages”
Even though there are many cluttered design examples, Chinese admire clean and simple layouts. Examples of this affirmation are popular web services like Baidu (Google alternative) and Weibo (Twitter counterpart). They both have designs that resemble the original ones of the Western hemisphere.

Google and Baidu homepage face to face.

Popular Chinese websites

Even though Google, Twitter and Facebook don’t operate in China, they have their own alternatives. These are three popular web services that are broadly popular.

QQ

QQ is the most popular social website in China. It is developed by the holding Tencent, creators of WeChat, a mobile app that integrates a wide variety of services like news, communities and instant messaging.

QQ, web portal and instant messaging service.
Sina Weibo

Microblogging website, it can be considered as China’s alternative to Twitter. Sina Weibo is also a web portal of entertainment, news and sports. It has over 500 million users worldwide.

Sina Weibo, a microblogging website.
Youku

The top video website in China. Like YouTube, people upload and share their videos with the world. Youku is based in Beijing and it operates as a subsidiary of Alibaba, the company specialized in e-commerce and retail.

Youku, video hosting service.

Launching digital products in China

An important thing to consider is related to third-party platforms. Since many websites rely on services made by Facebook, Google or Twitter, there is the need to consider alternatives as these companies and their sub products are blocked by the Chinese government. WeChat, Baidu and Kochava are some companies that operate in China and are great choices for implementing a social login and web analytics. You can check this list of websites blocked in China to see if your third-party service will work as expected.

Images and iconography
Embracing image assets with people with Asian features will make the site more trustworthy. Even though this is not a must, this will help to make a better market penetration.

As for the icons, it shouldn’t represent any issues. Chinese are familiar with flat-style iconography. However, experts consider that testing (not only images, but the site overall) with a native would prevent from having wrong meanings or negative connotations.

Conclusion

As said before, content localization is not only about language translations. It’s about making a digital experience cross-cultural with a mindset on meeting users expectations with business goals.

Everyone in the team should be involved about the basics of working in products targeted for China. Before launching your product, it can be very useful to run user tests with natives of the target audience. This will provide valuable insights about tastes and behaviors. Remote testing might be a good option to consider to save time and money.

Further reading

This article is part of an initial assessment to localize the i-Say website. It was written by the author in early 2015 and updated for the present blog post.

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